As India mourned the recent death of the Jewish writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – the country’s only Oscar-winning screenwriter – Dr Navras Jaat Aafreedi reflects on the pivotal role played by other Indian Jews in the history of Bollywood.
India only Academy Award-winning screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, a European Jew who was based in New Delhi for 24 years from 1951 until 1975, passed away on April 3, 2013.
Jhabvala wrote for films that were directed and co-produced by an Indian, but for Hollywood and not for the Indian cinema.
Born in Cologne, Germany in 1927, she settled in India after marrying a Zoroastrian from the country. While living in India she wrote a number of books. In 1963, she adapted her novel The Householder (1960) for the big screen and established a collaboration with the famous Merchant-Ivory Productions.
That was followed by a number of other collaborations with Merchant-Ivory: A Room with a View (1985), for which she won her first Oscar; Howards End (1992), her second Oscar win; and The Remains of the Day (1993), for which she was nominated for a third Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, though she did not win.
But there were also Jews who worked for Bollywood and they played as important a role in Indian cinema in its formative years, as they did in Hollywood. Yet there is only one Jew left in Bollywood today working as an actor, and this last surviving Jew is so only according to halachah, as he is a Muslim by faith.
That actor is Haider Ali, whose mother Pramila nee Esther Victoria Abraham (1911-2006), a film star of the silent era, married the Muslim film actor Kumar.
Pramila, who remained in India with Haider Ali when Kumar decided to migrate to Pakistan, was chosen as the first Miss India in 1947. But she was not the only Jewish film actress who married a Muslim. Nadira (1932-2006) and Pearl Padamsee (1931-2000) did the same.
Pramila was also not the only member of her family to pursue a career in film.
Her sister Sophie, known as Romilla, and her cousin Rose, were already in the movie industry. And there were many from the Jewish community working in Hindi movies, like Eliezer, Ermeline, Azurie, Kamlesh Kumari, Kitty Kelly and Lillian Ezra.
Indeed, most of the earliest female stars of the silent era of the Indian cinema were Jewish. This is significant considering the fact that it is the world’s biggest, the most diverse, and the most popular film industry and also one of the oldest.
It produces approximately 1,000 films annually, three times more than Hollywood does, in 20 different languages, and has an audience of more than three billion in India and millions more overseas. By the late 1990s, India had overtaken Japan and America as the producer of the largest number of feature films per year.
For centuries it was considered demeaning for women to appear on the stage or to become professional musicians, dancers or singers in India. Among the first to break the taboo were India’s Jewish women, who took up film acting, braving all the risks involved to their reputation.
Their entry encouraged educated women from other communities to follow suit. These women also began to appear on the stage and became well-known dancers and singers.
The fact that films were silent at first helped the Baghdadis, one of the three Jewish communities resident in India, to overcome the handicap of language.
With the introduction of talkies, there was less scope for actors who did not know Hindi. The Arabic-speaking Baghdadis had adopted English, the language of India’s colonial masters, as their mother tongue, instead of making any attempt to master any Indian language, after settling in India.
With a few exceptions, the Baghdadis identified themselves as far as possible with the rulers, the British, and not the ruled, the Indians.
Baghdadis believed it was disadvantageous to identify with the Indians, including the Bnei Israel Jews of the Indian state of Maharashtra, who were a conquered race. Moreover, there was no Indian citizenship as such. They felt that as Jews from another, albeit Asian, country, they could remain distinct and escape the worst aspects of the British-Indian relationship.
This inability to deliver dialogues in Hindi or any Indian language put an end to their successful careers in the Indian cinema, with the exception of a few.
India’s first female star was Patience Cooper, born into a Jewish family from Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) in 1905. She started as a dancer in Bandmann’s Musical Comedy, a Eurasian troupe, before being employed by Madan’s Corinthian Stage Company.
Cooper also became the first actress in Hindi cinema to play double roles with her films Patni Pratap – The Aura of a Wife (1923), in which she played twins, and Kashmiri Sundari – Beauty (1925), in which she played both mother as well as daughter. Her last film was Irada, released in 1944.
Sulochana (nee Ruby Myers, 1907-83) was the force that changed the very nature of Indian cinema. Before she entered movies, the socially degrading job of playing cinema heroines was generally given to slim young men, as even whores shied away from exhibiting themselves before the whole country.
Brown-eyed Sulochana fulfilled the criteria of an ideal Indian beauty. The extent of her fame is well illustrated by the fact that a hugely popular dance of Sulochana’s from the film Madhuri was added to a short film on Mahatma Gandhi, which also happened to be India’s first talkie venture.
Ironically, when Sulochana’s home company Imperial launched the first genuine talkie Alam Ara in 1931, it was not she, but her rival Zubeida, who was chosen to play the female lead, because of her command of Hindi. But the indomitable Sulochana acquired such proficiency in Hindi in just a year’s time as to make an ego-affirming comeback with the record-breaking talkie version of Madhuri.
The original glamour queen of Indian cinema, the Jewish Sulochana was once famous for drawing a salary larger than that of the governor of Bombay.
In the 1920s and 1930s, a Bnei Israel, Firoza Begum (nee Susan Solomon), starred in a succession of Hindi and Marathi films.
It was the Baghdadi Jewish actress Nadira nee Farhat, or Florence Ezekiel (1932-2006), who played the female lead in India’s first film in colour, Aan (1952). Few could portray vindictiveness and malice with Nadira’s panache.
She brought great style to the portrayal of the quintessential westernised vamp of Hindi films. Her role as a Christian mother in Julie (1975) was a landmark performance, which fetched her 15 awards.
She also appeared in a few English films, notably the Merchant-Ivory films The Guru (1969) and Cotton Mary (1999). She was well paid for her efforts and was one of the first Indian actors to own a Rolls Royce.
Pearl Padamsee (1931-2000), another Baghdadi, was a -distinguished actress of theatre and films. She added a new dimension to Indian theatre in general and Mumbai in particular, and presented the audience with many a notable actor and play.
Her Rise and Fall of Arturo Ui is considered a milestone in Indian theatre. She emerged as a prominent face of cross-over cinema and worked in many national and international film projects, in both Hindi and English, in a film career spanning over four decades.
Some of her significant English films are West is West (1987), Such a Long Journey (1998), and Kama Sutra (1996). She adopted her Muslim husband Alyque Padamsee’s -surname.
A well-known Jewish film actor was David Abraham Cheulkar (1908-81), who was awarded the Padmashri – India’s fourth highest civilian award – for his roles as a character actor and for his promotion of Indian sports.
He started his film career with the 1941 film Naya Sansar and went on to act in over 110 films. Two other prominent Bnei Israel actors were Hannock Isaacson nee Hanock Isaac Satamkar and Herman (Emmanuel) Ezra Benjamin Kolatkar.
Among the earliest scriptwriters for the silent films was a Bnei Israel Jew, Joseph David (1872-1942), a theatre manager of the 1930s, who was also the author of plays in Marathi and Urdu. He wrote the screenplay and some of the music of Alam Ara (1931).
A noted documentary film-maker, who came to be recognised as the father of Indian animation, was a Baghdadi Jew, Ezra Mir nee Edwin Myers (1903-1993).
He was responsible, in various capacities, for over 700 documentaries. He was the first president of the Indian Documentary Producers’ Association (1956). Ezra Mir directed Pamposh, the first Indian colour film processed completely in India, using Gevacolour stock.
The first Indian film to have an English version – Noor Jahan – was directed by him. He was also awarded the Padmashri in 1970 for his great contribution to Indian cinema.
One of the most prominent film-journalists, cine-personality-biographers and film-historians of India was a Bnei Israel, Bunny Reuben (1926-2007). He also produced a film and was also the director of publicity to the most famous filmmakers of India.
In the 1970s, when Steven Spielberg decided to shoot portions of his sci-fi adventure Close Encounters of the Third Kind in India, he signed Reuben as director of publicity, the best name in the field.
Considering the remarkable contributions of Jews to Indian cinema, it is surprising that it produced only six films with Jewish characters, with only two of them involving Indian Jewish characters.
Navras Jaat Aafreedi is assistant professor, Department of History & Civilisation, School of Humanities & Social Sciences at Gautam Buddha University, India.