Review

Shalom Bollywood review: Delightful documentary on forgotten Jewish stars of Indian cinema

Cinestaan Rating

Release Date: 16 Oct 2017 / 01hr 16min

Sonal Pandya

The film, 11 years in the making by Danny Ben-Moshe, unveils some of the biggest stars of Indian cinema — Sulochana, Miss Rose, Pramila, Nadira and David — all of whom were Jewish.

Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story Of Indian Cinema, focuses attention on five special stars of the silver screen — Sulochana, Miss Rose, Pramila, Nadira and David. These artistes became stars during the silent, later talkie and golden eras of Hindi cinema. While audiences became their fans, not many knew that Sulochana was Ruby Myers or that Rose was really Rose Ezra.

This documentary by producer-director Danny Ben-Moshe, who lives in Australia, highlights their contribution to the early stages of Indian cinema. Shalom Bollywood, broken down into three acts, is narrated by actress Ayesha Dharker who explains in the beginning of the documentary how women were reluctant to join the budding film industry in India. Many silent films had men playing the female parts.

The women of the Anglo-Indian community, however, decided that acting in films was not so bad. Their features were often striking and European and producers cast them in films instantly. Sulochana (Ruby Myers) became a star in the silent era but continued acting even in the talkies and the golden era of Hindi cinema, when leading parts were scarce but she took on character roles.

Rose joined during the talkies. Born Rose Ezra, she was a divorcee and a single mother and had come to Bombay from Calcutta after her divorce. A short but pretty woman, she was asked to join films. Several scenes from her hit film, Nai Kahani (1943), directed by DD Kashyap, were shown in the documentary where she played a more modern character.

Rose’s cousin, the tall, pretty Esther Victoria Abraham, visited her on set one day and got her own big break. Renamed Pramila for the silver screen, she was also the first Miss India in 1947. She too went on to become a star, so popular among the masses that separate film posters featuring only her were issued on popular demand.

Pramila caused quite a stir with the Indian censors. The camera often focused on her curvaceous figure and they tried to limit that. Pramila, with her good looks and charm, filled in more as the vamp than the heroine as she did in Amiya Chakrabarty's Basant (1942) with Ulhas and Mumtaz Shanti.

Pramila married Kumar (aka Hassan Ali) and together they produced many films under the Silver Films banner. In 1963, Kumar chose to move to Pakistan while Pramila stayed on in India with her children.

In the golden era of Hindi cinema, a new vamp arrived to take Pramila’s place. Her name was Nadira (Florence Ezekiel) and she got her big break in Mehboob Khan’s Aan (1952). She made her mark in films like Shree 420 (1955), Pakeezah (1972) and Julie (1975). By this time, working in films was no longer taboo, and women from Hindu and Muslim families began pursuing the profession, and producers and directors preferred them and their Indian features over the older Anglo-Indian stars.

David, born David Abraham Cheulkar, was a lawyer by profession but acting was always his passion. The character actor was part of several iconic Indian films like Boot Polish (1954), Gol Maal (1979) and Baton Baton Mein (1979). He also won the Filmfare award for Best Supporting Actor for his performcance in Boot Polish.

The charming, well-spoken ‘Uncle David’, as he was popularly known, was also in demand as a speaker and he represented India on special trips to Hollywood, meeting legends such as Alfred Hitchcock. The actor was also a referee in the sport of wrestling and travelled to the Olympics. He was in Munich representing India that fateful year, in 1972, when 11 Israeli athletes were killed by Palestinian terrorists. One of the slain Israelis was manager of the weightlifting team and David’s close friend.

To re-create the era of early Indian cinema of which little video footage remains, Shalom Bollywood uses clever, cheeky animation of photographs and posters. The documentary also provides a glimpse into the history of the Bene Israel and Baghdadi Jews, who came to India to escape persecution, and narrate how the small community continues even today. 

Filmmaker Ben-Moshe spoke with the few remaining descendants of the stars, from Rose’s granddaughter Rachel Reuben to Pramila’s son Haider Ali. The director also narrates their perspectives and lives. There are interviews with actor Rishi Kapoor, whose father Raj cast Nadira in Shree 420 and had a Jewish publicist, Bunny Reuben (the film is also dedicated to him), and David’s niece and nephew in Canada, Diana and Victor Abraham.

While Sulochana and Nadira achieved great heights of stardom, they also saw great lows. They died alone and penniless in 1983 and 2006, respectively. Sadly, not many are aware of their stories and this fascinating documentary does the artistes great service to make sure their names and contributions are not forgotten.

Shalom Bollywood had its world premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival and, hopefully, should be hosted in more places so that the stories of these Jewish stars are known to the world.

Shalom Bollywood was screened at the 19th MAMI Mumbai Film Festival on 16 October 2017.

Related topics

MAMI