Thursday, February 04, 2016

The hidden Jewesses of Indian cinema

Most of the actresses of the silent Indian cinema were Jewesses, claims Kenneth X Robbins in News Minute (referring to an earlier article). The identity of some actresses is contested even today. But the careers of these westernised girls was cut short with the advent of 'talkies': none could speak Hindi or Urdu. (With thanks: Michelle; Tom)

The actors were mostly Baghdadi Jewish women and the rest were from the Bene Israel community, not the Cochini community. That community was small, did not speak Hindi or Urdu, and lived far from the film making cities of Bombay and Calcutta. A single Baghdadi family contributed greatly to Indian films, 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.


The actress-producer Pramila was also the first Miss India.

Baghdadi Jewish actresses were known by single Western names (Lillian, Rose), Hindu names (Arati Devi, Pramila, Sulochana) or Muslim names (Firoza Begum, Nadira) rather than the ones identifying them as Jews. Lillian’s birth name was Lillian Ezra.

In India, the Bene Israel often referred to themselves in two ways. They used one or two “Biblical” names or “Biblical” names followed by a “Maharashtrian” surname identifying their ancestral Konkani village. In the movies, they were billed as David or David Abraham rather than David Abraham Cheulkar or Joseph David rather than Joseph David Penkar.

Simply identifying Jews has not been easy. Asha Bhende (once Lily Ezekiel) and Pearl Padamsee (whose mother was a Baghdadi Jew) are actresses who have used the last names of their non-Jewish husbands. Asha Bhende was also a prominent academic, whose works include Demographic and Socio Economic Characteristics of Jews in India.

Actresses like Zeenat Amat and Helen were not Jewish as some think. The backgrounds of Azurie, Leela Chitnis, Patience Cooper, Ermeline, Rinku Jaiswal, Kitty Kelly, Kamlesh Kumari, and Sabita Devi are contested even today and I seek more information about them. Was Vimala, whose birth name was Marcia Solomon and who is never mentioned in the discourse on Jewish actresses, Jewish?


Yoram said...

A friend of mine has confirmed that Lillian Ezra now lives happily with all her family in Israel, and lived in London for a long time after her brief movie carreer.

bataween said...

How nice to know, thanks.