The world of Nadira, Sulochana, Rose and Pramila

She is still known as the Dream Girl. But at 16, when Hema Malini decided to enter the film industry, her father wasn’t too pleased about it. In an interview for her authorised biography, Hema Malini: Beyond the Dream Girl, the actress talks about how her father was livid when she accepted the lead role in her debut film Sapno ka Saudagar. “My father wasn’t against my classical dances at sabhas and festival functions…but my acting in films somehow made him uncomfortable. I think he was very conscious of what his office colleagues would say.”

This was as late as the 1970s. Now imagine what it was like for women entering the film industry in the beginning – the 1920s and 30s.

A documentary film called Shalom Bollywood: the Untold Story of Indian Cinema, made by award winning documentary filmmaker Danny Ben-Moshe, unravels a lesser-known history of Indian films – the history of its earliest female stars. “There were two aspects to the story,” says Ben-Moshe. “One was from the perspective of Indian cultural history and the other was from the Jewish identity, culture and history”.

The starting point

A professor in an Australian university at the time (2006), Ben-Moshe started the film with a different aim in mind. He was intrigued by the immense popularity of the Jewish actress Nadira (Farhat Ezekiel) in Bollywood after reading an obituary of the Indian film industry’s iconic vamp. Initially he wanted to showcase Nadira’s story as a starting point to talk about the Jewish community’s history in India, and started digging around for other Jewish connections in Indian cinema.

It was during the 11-year-long process of making the film, that Ben-Moshe discovered that not only did most Indians not know that Nadira was a Jew, there were other Jewish women in early Indian cinema who paved the way for actresses to enter the film industry. Names like Sulochana (Ruby Myers), Rose (Rose Musleah) and Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham) kept popping up in his research. Although the film covers other male Jews in Indian cinema as well, the story of these women, the foremothers of Indian actresses, became the larger theme of the documentary.

In the era of silent films – 1920s and 30s, entering the film industry wasn’t considered a respectable profession for women from conservative Hindu and Muslim families. Ben-Moshe talks about how Dadasaheb Phalke went looking for actresses in the red light areas of Mumbai. “In some respects, it was considered a kind of prostitution for women to perform in public,” says Ben-Moshe. “When Phalke was making Raja Harishchandra (1913), he went to the red light districts – but even the prostitutes would not perform on screen for him – it was that (much of a) taboo and shunned upon.”

Setting a trend

So how did women from a small Jewish community break this taboo to be the first bonafide female stars of the Hindi film industry? Ben-Moshe thinks a number of factors contributed to this historical anomaly. “I think there were a few things going on with Anglo Indians and the Indian Jews in particular – one was that they had a western orientation and outlook, so they were familiar with Hollywood films.” he says. “They would look at the Hollywood female stars and see something of themselves in them.” As Rachel Reuben, who is the actress Rose’s granddaughter, says in the film, “They (the Jewish actresses) showed India that it was cool for women to be out there.”

According to Ben-Moshe, one of the reasons was also that there was more equality among Jewish men and women and that “culturally, there was nothing that a Jewish woman couldn’t do”. The progressive and cosmopolitan views of the community – which included open-mindedness towards drinking alcohol and wearing western outfits – also acted as an impetus for Jewish women to pursue their interests or careers. Another aspect was that actresses like Pramila and Rose were already trained as dancers in Parsi theatre.

So the requirements for being on screen, say like wearing risqué clothes or representing the vamp character who smokes, drinks and dances, did not seem like much of a leap for these women. In fact, Nadira’s lasting image in our minds is from the film Shree 420, where she holds her cigarette with élan as she dances seductively andwoos her love-interest Raj Kapoor. Her portrayal of the vamp was the perfect “bad girl” foil to establish the “good girl” heroine who the hero would eventually fall for.

Economic independence

But was it just a case of having the right mind-set and attributes that led Jewish women to enter the film industry? According to film scholar Madhuja Mukherjee, who has edited the book Voices of the Talking Stars: Women of Indian Cinema and Beyond, another reason for Jewish women to choose the film industry was the economic one. “In my research on actors of Anglo-Indian and Jewish descent, I found out they were joining the industry for work,” says Mukherjee. “Cinema as a career was offering much higher salaries than their previous line of work as secretaries, teachers, nurses or stenographers.”

The fact that cinema was a well-paying profession, is shown by the kind of lifestyle actresses like Sulochana or Rose had at the time. It is said that in her heyday Sulochana earned Rs 5000 per month, which was more than what the Governor of Bombay earned at the time. She is reported to have owned the latest models of cars like the Chevrolet and even the first ever Rolls Royce in India.

Mukherjee defines three kinds of backgrounds that women of that era were choosing to enter the film world from: the working women who wanted better paying jobs; the baiji (courtesan) community; and the wives of famous film directors who would use their husband’s surname and the prefix ‘Mrs’ to lend a certain respectability to being in the profession.

The picture of modernity

It’s relevant to point out that the acceptance of women from various backgrounds was in part also because of the way the industry functioned at the time. “The cosmopolitan nature of the industry welcomed women who were not only Jewish but women from disparate communities,” says Mukherjee. “Until the 1950s, the film industry was open to people from all kinds of backgrounds.” The filmmaker Danny Ben-Moshe has a similar take. “There was a lot of diversity on a film set – all the differences were set aside for a common love – that was making films.”

Although the educated middle class writers in popular magazines of that era did raise the question of respectability of the actresses, but Mukherjee feels that it did not have any actual impact on the lives of the female stars in question. Their popularity remained largely untouched by any such question on their background and families. They had numerous fans who admired them as singers and performers and were more interested in the present life of the actresses than in their past.

Ruby Myers (Sulochana) was extremely popular at that time, “particularly because she was pushing the idea of the cosmopolitanism. Her films demonstrated the exuberance of 1930s Bombay, which comprised glamour, fashion, speed, and new spaces of pleasure”, writes Madhuja Mukherjee in an article. “Her chiffon saris and sleeveless blouses, along with her expensive Chevrolet, produced the persona of a modern girl who was fully in control of her own life and is at ease in the public sphere”.

Changing times

With the advent of the talkies, though the Jewish actresses took a backseat. Being able to speak the Hindi language became more important a criteria, unlike the silent era. And as a result, actresses like Nargis and other Hindi-speaking women came to the forefront. Nadira then was the last in the line of Jewish actresses who came before her. In the historical context, post-Partition and after Independence in 1947, a large section of the Jewish community migrated to countries like Canada and Australia.

Jewish women and other women who entered the industry at this time did not remain restricted to acting. What is relatively unknown is that they also attained a position of power as producers. Pramila started a production house called Silver Films and went on to produce over 16 films with stars of the time like Prithviraj Kapoor, Raj Kapoor and Nargis. Sulochana started her own production house called Ruby Pictures in 1939. She was awarded the Dadasaheb Phalke award for her contribution to Indian cinema in 1973. The government of India also released a commemorative stamp in her honour in 2013 to mark the completion of 100 years of Indian cinema.

Sulochana’s fashion sense, Pramila’s stunts, Rose’s persona and Nadira’s portrayal of the educated, fierce and modern Indian woman will be etched in our collective memories and in the history of Indian cinema. Ben-Moshe sums up the contribution of these women in shaping our films: “I came to realise their strength of character, conviction and strength of their own value system that they brought to these roles,” he says. “These were edgy women, they were pushing the envelope, pushing the boundaries and they were going where others were not prepared to go. And maybe the history of Indian cinema would have been quite different without them!”

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 9:13:03 PM |

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