The First Indian Actresses and Jewish Stars in Indian Cinema

Jewish Women were one of the first actresses of Indian Cinema. During the silent era, the Jewish actresses and filmmakers played a key role in the most remarkable films that marked the era.

The First Indian Actresses and Jewish Stars in Indian Cinema The First Indian Actresses and Jewish Stars in Indian Cinema Source : Press

The Indian Jewish community are the ‘Baghdadi Jews' who came to India in the late 18th century and by the 19th century, they were settled and flourishing. The silent black and white 20s were the era of nascent Indian film industry. The filmmakers dived in vast ocean of literature to discover stories. The resources were scarce and everything had to be created from scratch. The involvement of Jews in Indian film industry can be traced back to the exigencies and the cultural circumstances of the milieu-film industry wasn't very organized and general opinion wasn't very favorable towards it and natural women were prohibited from working in films. It were men who played the roles of women. The Jewish people on the other hand were open minded and progressive, like the Parsees and they took the opportunity as an opening to enter the film industry. They were already employed in different professions unlike the women from other communities. Also, their fairer skin was deemed more appropriate for films.

Sulochana, which translates to ‘the one with beautiful eyes', did not exemplify the traditional Indian beauty. She was delicate and graceful. Mohan Bhavnani of Kohinoor Film Company saw her photographs and offered her a role in a movie. She rejected the offer but regretted it. Bhavnani later offered her the leading role in Veer Bala (1925 which she agreed to take up and overnight, a star was born. Her most popular movies are Cinema Ki Rani (1925), Typist Girl (1926), Wildcat of Bombay (1927), Indira B.A. (1929), Indira M.A. (1934), Anarkali (1935) and Bombai ki Billi (1936). In Wildcat of Bombay, she famously played eight characters including "a policeman, a gardener, a Hyderabadi gentleman, a street urchin, a banana seller and a blonde."

Sulochana's career took a downturn with the advent of talkies as the actors were now required to speak fluent Hindi. Sulochana learned Hindi within a year and made a comeback. She was recast in the remake talkies of earlier silent films and she was back again. She drove the best car, dated her co-star Dinshaw Bilimoria who were a famous couple and made headlines and at one point she made more money than the governor of Bombay.

Before her last movie Khatta Meetha (1981), in 1973, she was presented with the prestigious Dadasaheb Phalke Award for her tremendous contribution towards Indian Cinema. Her body of work broke stereotypes and inspired young women who followed her path to become successful actresses.

The Jewish actresses include-apart from Sulochana, the cousin duo of Miss Rose and Pramila, and Nadira who are among some of the most popular actresses of Bollywood of their era. They had changed their names. Sulochana was Ruby Myers, Nadira was Farhat Ezekiel, Pramila was Esther Abrahams. It was done not to hide their Jewish roots but to give them names that Indian audiences could pronounce.

Jewish playwright David Joseph Penkar wrote "Alam Ara" which released in 1931 to become India's first ‘talkies'. The same time dance number were introduced which have remained with Indian cinema ever since. Ezra Mir's 1932 film "Zarina" had 86 kissing scenes which attracted eyeballs.

As C.S. Lakshmi put it: "Pramila's death signifies the end of an era of films that had women and the nation as their core concerns. It was an era that was trying to deal with the educated, independent woman who was considered ‘modern' by placing her in opposition to a Bharat Nari they were trying to create. Pramila was almost always cast as the educated woman who still had to understand the true values of Bharat. She was the woman who played the piano and fluttered her eyes at the hero. Despite the negativity, such roles put her in, Pramila, with her wit and charm, always managed to outshine the heroine trying to portray the ‘true' Indian woman."

The first ever Miss India Pramila won the title in 1947. She became a popular actress and made a name as a stunt woman and a producer too.

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