Thursday, 1 August 2019

Indian Jewish women, pioneers of ''Silent Movie Era'' - 1930s

Indian stamp issued in 2013 in honor of Sulochana (Ruby Meyers) enewsminute.com 
Ever since 'silent movie' was introduced in India in the 1930s, 'cinema' has become a major entertainment for the Indian mass across the vast country. Subsequently, the Indian cinema, after the introduction of talkie movies, grew by leaps and bounds and became the most popular '' tamasha'' for the entertainment-hungry masses including the villagers.  Movies in regional languages like Bengali, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam, etc had begun to appear and mostly the story line was initially puranic in nature. Stories/ episodes  were drawn from the Hindu epics of the Ramayana or Mahabharata. Later social stories were introduced in the movies, some against social evils like the child marriage, inter-caste marriages, alcoholic drinking, etc. Fully family-oriented movies came out in the later years.  In the last few decades Bollywood  Hindi movies are widely  being screened across the globe where there is a large Indian diaspora. Songs form part of the movies and the melodious ones have won the appreciation of the audience, besides other aspects like acting, photography, etc
 Jewish actress-producer Pramila, also first Miss India. enewsminute.com 
 A little known fact is in  the very early phases of movie making in India, the female roles were done only by men as in Shakespearean dramas  for the simple reason the Indian women both Hindu and Muslim were not allowed to act in movies, because it meant they had to work along with lots of unknown men.  Unlike now, they did not enjoy freedom in the Indian society  and invariably  were not allowed to move out of the house. Nor were they allowed to go far higher studies in the colleges.  They spent  much of their time within the confines of  their home. Part of the reason is, being a male dominated society, the women were exploited by over-bearing men. Once they became succumbed to the advances of men, their marital credentials would be at stake. In a conservative societal scenario, many film directors did not feel quite happy about male donning the role of women acting in close proximity  with heroes when the romance sequences were shot. Though they chose effeminate men for such female roles. they lacked the natural charm, traits of real and shy women, not to speak of their unique gait, blushing, a sly look, etc. Yet another problem was taking close shots of heroines; this may  highlight certain masculine features of men donning female roles. So, romance scenes that form an important part of the movie fall out of the realm of  realism, sensibility and true identity of females. They won't thrill the audience. 
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The movie makers never gave up on their hope to bring the females to play the role of heroine opposite heroes, etc.  Their long tedious and untiring search paid off. In those days there lived a large Baghdadi Jewish community in Bombay, Cochin , Kolkata and other big cities. This community members were successful traders and enjoyed political clout in the colonial period. Unlike natives girls,  their upbringing was  anglicized. Baghdadi Jewish women  and Bene Israeli women   were bold, progressive. independent and enjoyed full freedom in the society. It is  mentioned that  Bene Israelis came to India in the second century to start their new life here.  They are the descendants of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, which was shipwrecked at Navgaon, a small village south of Mumbai, in the second century B.C. As for Baghdadi Jews,  they came to India from Iraq, Syria and Iran around 1796, to escape from religious persecution in their native places.    

 Bollywood Jewish actress Nadira (born Florence Ezekiel)thetealmango.com
When the movie directors approached  the Jewish girls with hesitation to take up female roles, they chipped in and assured them that they would help them out. The advantage is they were almost like Indian women from higher strata and had a fair skin. Their look and interest in acting stood them in good stead. As it happened to be silent movie-era, their lack of fluency in Hindi/Urdu was not the major concern. This was true of many western movies. As a matter of fact, I understand,  silent movies' well-known English/American  actors and actresses, could not shine in the talkie movies because of their lack of voice modulation, pronunciation,  etc.
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It is needless to mention that the early film producers depended on the Jewish women  to take up the role of a heroine opposite Indian males and they did their role well.  The Indian Cinema owes a lot to the Baghdadi Jewish  women  for the early growth of Indian movies and they took the credit of being first women to act in films unmindful of risking their name  at a time when the society was looking down upon the women  publicly performing arts. Simply, it was a  taboo during that period.  It is to be noted during  the silent era, most of India’s film stars were  from the Jewish community and they  had a successful careers in the  burgeoning film industry.  Their heyday in films lasted  until the advent of talkie movies.  With the exception some, most of the Jewish actors began to lose their importance in the talkie. The reason was they had difficulty in delivering long  tongue-twisting dialogue  in good Hindi. Proper pronunciation and fluency were the key factors. Their anglicized upbringing had an impact on their careers.  The new documentary ''Shalom Bombay''  directed by Danny Ben-Moshe (debuted at the Mumbai International Film Festival in the Fall  of 2017) is a simple attempt to bring  these  old stars back into the spotlight. They dominated box office in the 1930s. Shalom Bombay debuted at the Mumbai International Film Festival last fall.
 Hollywood Silent classic, Mark brothers.tumblr.com
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An interesting fact is  most of the Jewish people involved in the 'Indian art world' were Western Jews, but almost no non-Indian Jews played significant roles in the Indian movie industry.  The reason being the facial look. As actors, seen in the movies must be Indians or have the look of  Indians. This not so in the case of artwork; we give due attention to his/her work and  not his physical appearance,   
According to Priti Ramamurthy, a critic,  “racial differentiation was both the condition for women to enter a disreputable profession and the condition for reworking it.” The ''lighter skin tones'' helped Baghdadi and Angelo-Indian actresses hog the lime light in the movie industry in Bombay. 

The Indian movie industry remembers with gratitude how the Jewish actors worked hard and by doing so laid the basic foundation of Indian cinema which now has become popular across many continents.

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Tit -Bits: 

01. The famous actresses of the silent era from the Jewish community of Bombay were the  pioneers in the Bombay film industry. 

02. The Indian government in 2013  honored actress  Sulochana 
(Ruby Meyers), a  fine looking Baghdadi Jewish woman  from Poona by way of issuing a Postal Stamp. She starred in movies like “Typist Girl” (1926) and “Wildcat of Bombay” (1927). In those days, she was one of the highest paid actresses drawing a salary of Rs.5,000 - a whooping some in those days. 

03. Actress Nadira dominated the early Indian movies for a long period. Hailing  from the Nagpada area of central Mumbai,  perhaps she is the only Jew who continues today to do the odd role in television serials and cinema.

 04. Baghdadi Jewish actresses  had a single Western name (Lillian, Rose), but assumed Hindu names (Arati Devi, PramilaSulochana) or Muslim names (Firoza Begum, Nadira).

05. When Rachel Sofaer’s father had financial difficulties and to tide over the tough time, he permitted his daughter to act. Her screen name was  Arati Devi and in 1933 at age 21 she married a  Baghdadi Jewish man. She never acted later and her  cousin Abraham Sofaer became a Hollywood character actor.

06. The credit goes to Jewish actresses  for giving a spark to early woman empowerment in the film industry  and this helped the early  well-known Hindi actresses when talkie movies became popular. The actresses played the role of bold, modern Indian women just out of the  closet with cosmopolitan outlook, pushing the conservative persona on the back burner without losing long cherished Indian tradition. The Baghdadi Jewish actresses Nadira and Pramila were known for such roles. 

07. Baghdadi and other Jewish actresses  redefined and gave dignity to Indian natives entering film industry. During the colonial rule, in the conservative society, there was a necessity to bring many diverse and divergent communities under one umbrella. The Jewish actresses of past era gave the needed inspiration to  a small section of modern and progressive Indian women and stood as a role model for them. 

08. From the studies undertaken by some journalists/researchers, an interesting fact emerges out. Believe it or not, a single Baghdadi family made a solid contribution to Bollywood in its infancy - by giving us the actress-producer Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham), her sister the actress Romila (Sophie Abraham), and her cousin the starlet Rose (Rose Musleah). Pramila’s son Haider Ali is an actor, who is best known as the co-writer of the blockbuster film Jodhaa Akbar.  
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Photo-essay, first published on Café Dissensus in December 2014 under the title “Indian Jews in Cinema”, Kenneth X. Robbins.

This brief post is based on the following works:
 https://forward.com/schmooze/174754/jewish-stars-of-bollywood/
https://cafedissensus.com/2014/12/31/indian-jews-in-cinema/
http://b-inet.com/sammy/indian-jewish-actors/
http://www.conspiracyschool.com/news/%5Bnode:title%5D-2
ttps://www.thetealmango.com/entertainment/new-documentary-shalom-bombay-puts-the-spotlight-on-the-jewish-stars-of-early-bollywood/