Imagine that it’s the spring of 1913, in the dawn of Indian cinema — what we know today as that song-and-dance, escapist movie industry that is Bollywood.
Back then, it was considered unseemly for Hindu and Muslim actresses to appear on celluloid, so they hired burly men with trademark Indian mustaches to play women by dressing in bedazzled saris and bangles and prancing around. It all ends up looking a lot like a Monty Python skit.
Then, one day, a theater producer thought of a solution: Why not cast female Jewish Indian dancers as Hindu heroines, since their families allowed them to perform onstage? In a largely untold and nearly forgotten story, Indian Jewish actresses rose to become some of the most famous starlets during the golden age of Bollywood.
“Just when you thought you’ve heard it all,” chuckled Daniel Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, which, along with the Indian Embassy in Washington, sponsored a screening of clips from the forthcoming documentary “Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema.”
The film was pieced together over six years and five trips to India by Danny Ben-Moshe, a documentary filmmaker and professor at the Center for Citizenship and Globalization at Deakin University, in Australia. He was in Washington trying to raise the funds to complete the final edits on the film; in addition to appearing at the embassy, he gave a lecture at the Library of Congress.
The project began when the father of an Indian graduate student of Ben-Moshe’s mailed him an old obituary of Nadira, the last of the great Jewish Bollywood actresses to die. Nadira — real name: Florence Ezekiel — was from a Baghdadi Jewish family and was beloved in Indian cinema for playing “a quintessential vamp,” Ben-Moshe said.
“I went to India to do some research to see if there was enough material to make a film about Nadira, but I found out she was the tip of the iceberg,” Ben-Moshe said. He hunted for the relatives of the now-deceased Jewish stars and combed through dusty libraries, museums and street markets, collecting everything from crumbling newspaper stories to old film posters.
He discovered that the Indian starlet known as Sulochana was actually Ruby Myers, a nice Jewish girl from the Indian city of Pune. Myers starred in the 1927 madcap silent film “Wildcat of Bombay,” in which she played eight characters, including a Hyderabadi gentleman, a street urchin, a banana seller, a policeman and a European blonde. And the beloved Indian actress Esther Abraham, a.k.a. Pramila — a household name — was known for her feistiness and for doing her own stunts. She was also the first Miss India.
“Unlike Hollywood, Indian Jews were on-screen, not behind the scenes,” Ben-Moshe said. “And they used stage names not to conceal their identity, but to have pronounceable names for Indians.”
The documentary also highlights the history of Jewish communities in India, such as the Bene Israel, who claim to have descended from seven Jewish families shipwrecked on India’s shores while fleeing persecution in the Galilee in the 2nd century B.C. Or the Baghdadi Jews, who arrived in the country from Iraq and Syria in the late 18th century and lived in trading communities in Bombay and Calcutta.
About 6,000 Baghdadi and Bene Israel Jews live in India today, largely in Mumbai — a tiny minority in the nation of 1.5 billion, but one that has a distinct identity and that has always gotten along with India’s Hindu and Muslim population.
While Ben-Moshe was doing his research in India, a secretary working at a synagogue in Mumbai told him that she was a Hindu but was working there because she wanted to “be close to God.”
“She said, ‘Any god is a good god,’ and I thought ‘Wouldn’t it be good if everybody believed that?’ ” Ben-Moshe said. “It’s not like I’m going to bring world peace with this movie. But it has a great message worth sharing. Plus, it’s just great fun.”
Several Indian Jewish families who live in the Washington area attended the embassy event, including Nissim Reuben, whose grand-uncle is the late film star David Abraham Cheulkar, popularly known in India as “Uncle David.”
“He was the Bob Hope of Indian cinema,” said Reuben, who is originally from Ahmedabad and is the program director of Indian-Jewish American relations for the Washington-based American Jewish Committee.
“I’ve heard a lot of this history just through family stories. But I’m so glad that someone’s documented this history. I think people will be amazed.”