Bollywoods bad girls: Jewish actresses lit up screen in Indian cinemas early years

During the golden age of Indian cinema, one of the biggest and most glamorous stars, Sulochana, exuded an exotic flair that thrilled audiences from Bombay to Bangalore.

Sulochana’s real name was Ruby Myers. She was Jewish.

It’s one of the secrets of the era before Bollywood. Unlike most Hindu and Muslim women, prohibited for modesty’s sake from working in film, India’s Jewish women were allowed to pursue movie careers.

And they did.

Sulochana, aka Ruby Myers, and D. Bilimoria in the 1934 film “Indira M.A.” photo/courtesy of the national film archive of india

A special presentation on the subject, “A Bollywood Shabbat,” will take place Feb. 19 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco. The event includes a lecture, film clips and a divine Indian feast.

“It was forbidden for Muslim and Hindu women to be onscreen or onstage,” says documentarian Eric Molinksy, one of the presenters. “It was like prostitution. But there were a lot of Anglo Indians, children of diplomats, and also Jewish women who could sing and dance.”

For the lecture, Molinsky will share the stage with Deborah Stein, a Mills College professor of Indian art and cinema, and Anuj Vaidya, an Indian cinema expert who works with the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley.

Based in Boston, Molinsky is known for his work in public radio. He took on an assignment last year to examine the story of Jewish movie stars in India.

What he learned fascinated him. For one thing, the Jewish saga in India stretches back more than 2,000 years. Jewish immigration came in three waves. The Bene Israel, according to legend, were shipwrecked there after Jews fled Roman rule in ancient Israel. Later another group of Jews settled in the area around Cochin, developing a unique religious culture.

Finally, Jews from Arab lands came to India in the 18th and 19th centuries, mostly as traders. They became known as Baghdadi Jews.

One thing all three waves faced in common: an Indian Hindu majority that welcomed them.

Stein says that for the Jewish actresses, their “ethnicity was hard to pin down for the audience. It allowed the actresses to be very malleable. They would play the good Indian girl in the village who is exposed to Western culture, becomes decadent, then goes back.”

As Sulochana and another star, Nadira (aka Florence Ezekiel, of a Baghdadi family), showed, they could also play the vamp.

“Nadira played the bad girl,” Molinsky says, “the women other Indian women couldn’t play. She was fiery, an  incredibly strong screen persona and a very Hollywood  look with arched eyebrows like Claudette Colbert and lips like Joan Crawford.”

Nadira spent her last years as a recluse in her Mumbai flat. After 1948, most Jews of India made aliyah — including Nadira’s brother — so she was left alone. She died in 2006 at the age of 73.

Even though Jews had an easier time of it in show business than their Hindu and Muslim sisters, the Jewish Indian stars faced their own slings and arrows. Nadira had two failed marriages, including a one that lasted only a week.

“She wanted to marry a Jewish man,” Molinsky says, “but it was very hard because of her reputation [as a movie vamp].”

For most American moviegoers, outside of “Slumdog Millionaire” and a few frenetic Bollywood clips on YouTube, Indian cinema is largely unknown. But the industry was enormously influential in the subcontinent years before it went global.

Fans and scholars such as Stein clued in long ago. The Seattle native fell in love with Indian art as an undergraduate at Barnard College, later earning a doctorate after living and studying in Rajasthan for a year.

Jewish herself, Stein is quick to note that India is one of the few countries with virtually no history of anti-Semitism. That was one more reason why she was drawn to the subcontinent, even if it meant her Jewish identity took a temporary backseat.

Says Stein, “My Sanskrit is better than my Hebrew.”

“A Bollywood Shabbat” takes place. Feb. 19 at the JCCSF, 3200 California Street. Feast 6:30 p.m., lecture 7:30 p.m. Tickets: $10 (lecture only) to $35 (with feast). Information: (415) 292-1200 or online at www.jccsf.org.

pine-dan
Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.