Bollywood’s Jewish stars

Jewish Bollywood actress Nadira (left) in one of her movies.

WHEN award-winning Melbourne documentary filmmaker, Danny Ben-Moshe was shown the obituary of the Jewish-Bollywood actress Nadira, little did he know that it would lead him down the road to his latest film project. 

Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema  has spanned 11 years and uncovers the remarkable Jewish impact on the world’s largest film industry.

Now, as production enters the concluding phase, Ben-Moshe has launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise the final $20,000 required to get the feature length documentary over the line.

“When Indian cinema began, it was taboo for Hindu and Islamic women to perform in public; but the Jewish community was more liberal and educated, and did not have this taboo,” explained Ben-Moshe. 

Therefore Jewish women took the starring roles. Ben-Moshe learnt that Nadira – real name Farhat Ezekiel – a “post-independence super vamp”, was not the first, or the only, Indian-Jewish woman to dominate Bollywood.

First, there was Solochana, who was born as Ruby Meyers. She was the original Indian-Jewish siren of the silver screen, alluring audiences from the 1920s with her dark almond-shaped eyes and fair skin. 

There were also Arati Devi (Rachel Sofaer) and Miss Rose. 

These women were beyond superstars; they became powerful cultural icons, and potent expressions of femininity and female sexuality.

Recalling his first of six trips to India, Ben-Moshe said, “I got all this information about Nadira, and then people would say, ‘Yes, ok, but you need to speak with Pramila’s family.’”

Pramila (aka Esther Abrahams) was a celluloid goddess and the first Miss India in 1947 – and before long, Ben-Moshe was introduced to her son, Haider Ali.

“My late mother … grew up in a conservative Orthodox Jewish family,” Ali recalled. “She married a Muslim. We had both cultures in my family. My mother a Jew; my father, a Muslim … and my wife, a Hindu!”

“I can live like that. Why is the world fighting? I am not fighting with my wife. I am loving her!” 

Ben-Moshe also met the Muslim caretakers of Mumbai’s synagogue and Jewish cemetery, and saw Hindus praying at and protecting Bene Israel Jewish sites in Konkan. 

“It was so respectful and open-minded. That really blew me away, and gave me a lot of optimism.” 

For more info or to contribute to the Indigogo crowdfunding campaign, visit bit.ly/2r3s07o.

In Australia, tax deductible donations can also be made at https://www.documentaryaustralia.com.au/film/donate/335/shalom-bollywood-the-untold-story-of-jews-and-bollywood.

REBECCA DAVIS