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Jews, the lost tribe of Indian Cinema

At a time it is reaching out to many countries, Bollywood seems to be losing out on a legacy - its Indian Jewish benefactors.

india Updated: Dec 17, 2005 10:43 IST
Indo-Asian News Service
Indo-Asian News Service

At a time it is reaching out to many countries, Bollywood seems to be losing out on a legacy - its Indian Jewish benefactors.

Their role in the Hindi film industry, especially during the pre-independence, silent era, was of great importance but is now largely forgotten - except in scholarly circles.

Not surprising since the number of Jews, consisting of three major lineages in India (Cochinis, Baghdadis and Bene Israelis), has fallen from some 30,000 in 1948 to about 5,500 today - after living in the country for over 2,000 years.

When India started producing films in the early 20th century, it was taboo for Hindu and Muslim women from "respectable" families to play the lead roles.

"The Jewish community, owing to the far more Westernised bringing-up, was more liberal when it came to acting in movies, especially by the womenfolk," the Indian Jewish Federation's founder chairman Jonathan Samuel Solomon told the agency.

Solomon, a Bene Israel whose grandfather Solomon Moses ran the Bombay Film Lab Pvt Ltd from the 1940s to 1990s, will soon travel to Israel to interact with Indian Jews who have now settled there.

Bene Israelis are the descendants of one of the 10 lost tribes of Israel, which was shipwrecked at Navgaon, a small village south of Mumbai, in the second century BC and made India their home.

"The community was in a sense pioneering when it comes to the Bombay film industry with several superstars of the silent era hailing from Jewish households," said Manohar Iyer of Keep Alive, a group striving to collate and highlight achievements of vintage Bollywood artistes.

Actress Firoza Begum alias Susan Solomon, a Bene Israel, starred in a succession of Hindi and Marathi films like "Bewafa Qatil", "Prem Veer" and "Circus Girl" in the 1920s and 1930s.

Ruby Meyers (1907-1983), more famous by her screen name Sulochana (senior), was another Bene Israel, who was introduced into the world of films by Ardeshir B Irani, the father of Indian talkies.

The Pune-born actress starred in movies like "Typist Girl" (1926) and "Wildcat of Bombay" (1927) and was one of the highest paid actresses of her time drawing a salary of Rs 5,000.

She is often remembered for her role of a nanny in "Julie" (1975), which also starred another famous Jewish actress Nadira alias Farhat Ezekiel, a Baghdadi Jew who debuted opposite Dilip Kumar in "Aan" (1952).

"The Baghdadi Jews (who arrived from Iraq, Syria and Iran around 1796, fleeing persecution in their native lands) were very fair and beautiful, making them ideal candidates for the silver screen," Solomon said.

"So they were a natural choice for lead roles," he observed.

Scholars also recall Patience Cooper (1905-1983), who played the first double role of Indian cinema in "Patni Pratap" (1923), Pramila or Esther Abraham and others.

David Abraham Cheulkar (1908-1982), better known as David, who portrayed the benevolent "John Chacha" of "Boot Polish" (1954) and is remembered for the song "Nanhe Munne Bachche", too was a Bene Israel.

Kolkata-born Ezra Mir alias Edwin Myers (1903-1993) was the first chief of India's Film Division, then called the Information Films of India under British rule, and is mentioned in the Guinness Book of World Records as the producer of the largest number of documentaries and short films.

Bunny Reuben, another Bene Israel, is a senior film journalist and author who has chronicled the trends in Bollywood since the late 1940s and was a close friend and publicist of legendary showman Raj Kapoor.

Reuben has penned several biographies of Bollywood personalities - the latest one being "...and Pran", about the life and times of the screen villain Pran.

Nadira, who hailed from the Nagpada area of central Mumbai, is perhaps the only Jew who continues today to do the odd role in television serials and cinema.

On their part, Jews - in India as well as in Israel - are fond of vintage Hindi film music.

"The 50,000-strong Indian Jews settled in Israel are perhaps the biggest fans of vintage Bollywood music. They associate these songs with fond memories they have of their time in India," said Solomon, who dreams of organising a concert in Israel some day.

First Published: Dec 17, 2005 10:43 IST