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History Can’t Forget the Jews of Bollywood

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avatar by Karys R. Oschin

Opinion

Liora Itzhak (center) as featured in the Diwali virtual celebration hosted by Israel’s Embassy in India. Photo: Screenshot.

Can you imagine a museum showcasing the history of electricity without featuring Thomas Edison? Or a museum on the Cubism movement in art that failed to acknowledge Pablo Picasso? And yet, that’s what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences recently did when they opened their new multi-million-dollar museum in Los Angeles, which inexcusably left out the Jewish founders of Hollywood.

Thankfully, after justified criticism from the Jewish community and others, the Academy acknowledged their error and said they would repair this egregious oversight.

But the incident raises a broader issue — are there other industries of entertainment that the Jews have been erased from or downplayed in, as well? It appears there are.

One such industry the Jewish community helped build up was the Indian film industry of “Bollywood.”

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India’s tiny Jewish population played a large role in Indian cinema during the first half of the 20th century. Jewish writers, performers, and especially female actresses captured the imagination of Indian audiences, becoming household names, winning awards, and setting cinema records.

But despite the significant role that Jews played in transforming India’s growing movie industry into one of the world’s most prolific film enterprises, most Indian filmgoers had no idea their favorite stars were Jewish. In fact, the superstars of Bollywood almost always kept their Jewish identities hidden, both on-screen and in interviews, and avoided playing Jewish characters.

Luckily, this untold forgotten story has been well-recorded, enabling us to learn about how the Jews of India helped shape the vibrant culture of South Asia.

South Asian Jews originate from various backgrounds, but two historic Indian Jewish communities trace their roots to the Middle East, and ended up in the burgeoning film capital of Mumbai. The Baghdadi Jews were descendants of merchants who left Iraq in the 18th and 19th centuries, while the Bene Israel Jews, once the largest Jewish community in India, are thought to have been descendants of one of the Ten Lost Tribes of Israel, who then settled in the Konkan region of India before moving to Mumbai. While Jews numbered in the low thousands during Indian cinema’s nascent days, they were nonetheless a flourishing community.

The first Hindi feature film was released in 1913. At the time, Hindi and Muslim women were not allowed to perform in movies. Due to prevailing conservative attitudes, Indian female acting was considered taboo. Consequently, men portrayed women’s roles, and the silent films of the early 20th century were all-male productions. But gender roles were different in the Jewish community, where women didn’t face the same cultural and religious restrictions. Thus, India’s prohibitions against female Muslim and Hindu actors opened the door for Jewish actresses to step in and assume leading roles.

Jewish women from the small community of Iraqi Jews that resettled in India largely filled the gap in Indian cinema. Hiding their Jewish ancestry and assuming Indian stage names to be more relatable, Ruby Myers became Sulochana, Esther Victoria Abraham became Pramila, Florence Ezekiel Nadira became Nadira, Susan Solomon became Firoza Begum, Rose Musleah became Miss Rose, and Rachel Cohen became Ramala Devi.

Their charm and beauty elevated them to superstardom, as they became some of the most prominent names throughout the first half-century of Indian cinema. At the same time, they defied misogynistic mindsets by playing modern characters and roles deemed unsuitable for women rather than traditional homemakers.

Behind the scenes, they were also trailblazing feminists. Sulochana and Pramila ran their own production companies, where they wrote scripts and composed music. Pramila married a Muslim actor and raised their children in both faiths, putting religious differences aside and engaging in peaceful coexistence. Gandhi even used Sulochana’s image in his political campaigns. Moreover, the presence of Jewish women in Hindustani-language films paved the way for non-Jewish women to act in movies, and provided a great exercise in cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity.

While these Jewish women were becoming national icons, Jewish men were also making their mark in Bollywood. Many were writers and producers working behind the camera, such as Ezra Mir, born Edwyn Myers, who produced over 170 films and joined the Film Advisory Board in 1940, as well as the renowned lyricist and playwright Joseph David Penkar, a Bene Israel Jew, who told tales of Indian folklore and wrote Jewish-themed plays. Penkar went on to write the first talkie in India in 1931, and set the template for the singing and dancing storylines for which Bollywood is renowned today.

These larger-than-life characters, both men and women, left a significant legacy to both Jewish and Indian cultural heritage. They were proud Jews, Indians, and artists who helped make Indian cinema what it is today. In the 1930s, even more Jews arrived in India, which became a refuge for German Jews amid the rise of Hitler.

In the 1940s, a cultural shift towards women acting occurred. By the 1960s, Hindu and Muslim women were regularly starring in feature films. By then, most Jews had left India because of Indian independence and the creation of Israel. Those who emigrated to Israel brought with them the Indian films of the Jewish stars, where they instantly became smash hits. Still, some Jews sought to remain in India.

Today, there are only a handful of Jews left in a country with over 1.3 billion people.

But the Jews of Bollywood made a substantial impact on Indian cinema. We must pay homage to their legacy by keeping their story alive.

Karys R. Oschin is the Manager of Strategic Research and Writing at Creative Community For Peace, a non-profit entertainment industry organization that represents a cross-section of the creative world dedicated to promoting the arts as a means to peace. 

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