What made Jewish film stars so relevant to Bollywood in 20th century

An exhibition on the Jewish community in India threw light on the close links that the community had with the Hindi film industry


An exhibition on the Jewish community in India—from the 18th century onwards—that came to an end on Tuesday in New Delhi threw light on the close links that the community had with the Hindi film industry, Photo: Ramesh Pathania/ Mint
An exhibition on the Jewish community in India—from the 18th century onwards—that came to an end on Tuesday in New Delhi threw light on the close links that the community had with the Hindi film industry, Photo: Ramesh Pathania/ Mint

New Delhi: What do yesteryear films stars—Nadira, David and Pearl Padamsee—have in common, besides Bollywood? All of them were born in the Jewish faith and form part of a little-known group of Jewish film stars that were an intrinsic part of Bollywood in the 20th century.

An exhibition on the Jewish community in India—from the 18th century onwards—that came to an end on Tuesday in New Delhi threw light on the close links that the community had with the Hindi film industry. The opening of the exhibition was timed to coincide with India and Israel marking 25 years of establishing diplomatic relations, on 29 January.

Nadira, for instance, was born Florence Ezekiel and is best remembered for her performance in films in the 1950s and 1960s such as Shree 420, Pakeezah and Julie.

David—well known for playing the role of “John Chacha” in the 1954 film Boot Polish—was born David Abraham Cheulkar. He was a member of Mumbai’s Marathi-speaking Bene Israel (one of the lost tribes of Israel) community. Some of his well-known films include Chupke Chupke, starring Dharmendra and Amitabh Bachchan, and Khubsoorat which had Rekha in the female lead role.

Pearl Padamsee may be best known among the lot, not least as the former wife of advertising guru Alyque Padamsee, but among those familiar with the film and theatre scene in India in the 1970s and 1980s. She is remembered for her roles in films like Khatta Meetha, a light-hearted family drama, and romantic comedy Baaton Baaton Mein.

The opening of the exhibition was timed to coincide with India and Israel marking 25 years of establishing diplomatic relations, on 29 January.Photo: Ramesh Pathania/ Mint
The opening of the exhibition was timed to coincide with India and Israel marking 25 years of establishing diplomatic relations, on 29 January.Photo: Ramesh Pathania/ Mint

Other Jewish actresses who made a name for themselves in Bollywood include Esther Abraham—well known by her screen name Pramila, a member of the Baghdadi Jewish community—the name signifying those who had migrated to India from Iraq or Syria. She made it big in Bollywood, mainly in the era of silent films.

Besides being a stunt star in 30 films, she was also well known as a woman film producer, with 16 films under her Silver Productions banner.

According to a report in Israel’s Haaretz newspaper, when Indian cinema began, it was considered taboo for Hindu and Muslim women to appear on screen. So initially, female roles were played by men. However, the Jewish community was more liberal and progressive and were prepared to act. The fact that they had lighter skin colour made them all the more suited for celluloid.

Pramila’s sister Romila (or Sophie Abraham) was also an actress, as was her cousin Rose (born Rose Musleah). Pramila’s son Haider Ali is an actor and best known for his work as the co-writer of Hritik Roshan-Aishwarya Rai-starrer Jodhaa Akbar.

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