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The untold story of Jews in Indian cinema
Atul Dev  21st Sep 2013

Nadira with Raj Kapoor

t was by chance that I found that story" Ben-Moshe told me. In 2006, a student of Danny Ben-Moshe, a documentary filmmaker and professor at Deakin University, mailed him the obituary of Florence Ezekiel, popularly known as Nadira, "the quintessential vamp" of Bollywood. With an intention to make a documentary on the Jewish actress, Danny travelled to India for research. Only to find, "she was just the tip of an iceberg."

In the early years of Indian cinema, there prevailed a surreal scenario. Though women acted in plays and such, appearing on celluloid was still not considered a seemly profession among Hindus and Muslims. Solution: Brawny men, draped in saris, wearing bangles would play women. Cavorting around the screen and turning motion picture into, as Danny suggested, "A Monty Python skit."

"Jewish families living in India were relatively more liberal, so they started to perform in movies", explained Ben-Moshe. They adopted familiar sounding names, so that they would be accepted easily by the audience. The people behind those names are gone today and so is the history they conceal in them. Ben-Moshe's documentary explores this bygone aspect in the history of Indian cinema.

Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema, explores the role a small community of migrants played in shaping, what was to become, the world's biggest film industry.

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The documentary explores the role a small community of migrants played in shaping, what was to become, the world’s biggest film industry.

Of the long list of Jewish actresses; Ruby Myers (Sulochana) remembered for her famous 1927 movie Wildcat of Bombay, Susan Soloman (Firoza Begum) and Esther Abraham, the first Miss India, are worth noting. Later, David Abraham Cheulkar, starring in more than a hundred films, did memorable roles as "Uncle David" of Boot Polish and Golmaal. Ezekiel herself appeared in almost as many movies, usually playing the tormentor of a helpless female protagonist.

Sulochna

The influence of Jews on the industry, much like Hollywood, can also be seen behind the camera. Jospeh Penkar David wrote India's talking feature-film, Alam Ara in 1931.The famed choreographer David Herman was desired by top directors of the time. Bunny Reuben, biographer of Raj Kapoor, was also a gifted publicist and worked as publicity manager for movies by Yash Chopra, Prakash Mehra and BR Chopra among others.

During his five trips to India, Danny met the relatives of these deceased stars, browsed through libraries and visited old houses to collect enough material for the documentary. The film, Danny told me, tells the story of these artists through the clips of films in which they appeared.

Many of these starlets worked with top-billing producers, directors and actors, so the documentary, essentially, accounts the early times of Bollywood. New studios, affairs, feuds, male heart-throbs and such. Rishi Kapoor, among other senior figures, also appears in the documentary.

David Abraham Cheulkar

The documentary also captures their fall from grace in the industry. Even in those times, this industry was just as unforgiving to a fading star as it is today. Stories of bankruptcy and careers consumed by alcohol were just as prevalent. Both Ezekiel and Myers spent their later years alone after unsuccessful marriages.

The documentary also covers the larger history of Indian Jews. The Bane Israel tribe lived for over 2000 years along the Konkan coast, turning to Mumbai at the turn of twentieth century. The Baghdadi Jews on the other hand, migrated to India from the Middle East in the early 19th century, and continue to live here today in large numbers. Danny chuckles at the idea of how he made this journey in a 20 minute boat ride.

The documentary will hopefully be completed this year. "I tried to change the theme of the movie as we were editing", says Ben-Moshe. Initially the film was about the stardom of these actors and their contribution to Bollywood; now it is a more personal story of these faded luminaries.

 
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