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The Jewish influence on Indian cinema

From Sulochana to Nadira, here's how this community made a huge difference to early Hindi cinema.

Sonal Pandya

The Jewish community in India has been around for 2,000 years and during the early formative years of the Indian film industry, a significant portion of its talent derived from the same community. Stars like Sulochana, Ramola Devi and David flourished in front of the camera while behind the curtain, others like Joseph David Penkar wrote the script for India's first talkie, Alam Ara (1931) and Bunny Reuben was Raj Kapoor's publicist.

During the silent era, actors doubled up on the male and female roles as it was hard for women to join the industry. Later, women from the Jewish community (Firoza Begum, Ramola Devi and Sulochana) who had more liberal upbringings entered films. Sulochana, née Ruby Myers, rose to become one of the highest paid actors of her era, earning more than even the Governor of Bombay. Her biggest hits were Typist Girl (1926), Balidaan (1927) and Wildcat of Bombay (1927). She was even cast as Anarkali in R. S. Chaudhari's film on the tragic dancer in 1928. As the industry shifted to talkies, Sulochana took time off to learn Hindustani and relaunched herself in the remake of Madhuri (1932) where she reprised her role from the silent version. In the 1930s, she starred in Sulochana (1933) tailored to her talents and even set up her own production company, Rubi Pics. But with the changing times, she began to get cast in supporting roles. In Anarkali (1953), she was Salim's mother. Sulochana was bestowed with the Dada Saheb Phalke Award in 1973 for her contribution to India cinema and even issued her own stamp in 2013.

Other actresses of Jewish descent, Firoza Begum (née Susan Solomon) and Ramola Devi (née Rachel Cohen) never quite acquired the star status of Sulochana but still made their mark in Indian cinema. Firoza Begum appeared in both Hindi and Marathi films of the 1920s and 1930s like Bewafa Qatil and Circus Girl. Ramola Devi first came onto the silver screen with Calcutta After Midnight (1937) but is most well-known for her role as Madhuri in musical murder mystery Khazanchi (1941). She retired from films after the 1950s.

The actress-dancer Azurie (née Anna Marie Gueizelor) also grew famous in the 1930s and 1940s with her performances in Gentleman Daku (1937) and Watan (1938). She went on to influence later dancers like Cuckoo Moray. The first ever winner of Miss India in 1947 was Pramila (née Esther Victoria Abraham). Pramila was truly ahead of the times as she began her career in films as stunt artist in Ulti Ganga (1942) and Basant (1942). She opened her own film company Silver Productions which released 16 films and thus became the first female film producer in the industry.

Another Bene Israel actor, David Abraham Cheulkar, more commonly known as David, started his career with Naya Sansar (1941), Khwaja Ahmad Abbas's first film as a screenwriter. He won the Filmfare Award for Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of John Chacha in Boot Polish (1954). Later generations may know him from his roles in Gol Maal and Baton Baton Mein (1979). In 1969, he was awarded the Padma Shri by the Indian government.

The 1950s also saw the debut of Nadira (née Florence Ezekiel) in Mehboob Khan's Aan (1952) with Dilip Kumar as her hero. She moved on to play the second lead and was seen as the vamp or temptress in films like Shree 420 (1955) and Dil Apna Prit Parayee (1960). Like Sulochana, she was a top paid actress and one of the few stars to own a Rolls-Royce in India.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Joseph David Penkar was a highly successful playwright and director with the Parsi Imperial Dramatic Company who moved his talents onscreen with Alam Ara (1931), India's first talkie. Choreographer David Herman was associated with R.K. Studios during the 1950s and 1960s. India's first chief at the Film Division, Ezra Mir, holds the Guinness Book of World Record for producing the largest number of short films and documentaries. Bunny Reuben, the aforementioned publicist to the stars, later went on to become a film historian and biographer, writing books on Raj Kapoor and Pran.

The Jewish contribution to Indian cinema is largely ignored. Many fans weren't even aware that their favourite stars were actually Jewish as their identities were hidden. Over the years, many have uncovered the stars that became forgotten as time went by. The documentary, Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema, by filmmaker Danny Ben-Moshe tries to unearth these lost faces and the important role they, too, played in burgeoning days of Indian films.