Dir/Writer: Danny Ben-Moshe | Doc | US | 85′
In his feisty all singing all dancing doc Danny Ben-Moshe shows how religious taboos led to the first superstars of Indian cinema being Jewish. India has always been extremely tolerant towards its Jewish population, it was deeply frowned on for Hindu and Muslim women to appear in film back in the early years of the 20th century, so their roles were generally played by men, until female Jewish stars filled the vacuum.
Light-hearted and full of cheeky chutzpah Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema explores the rise to fame of four such prima donnas — Sulochana, Pramila, Miss Rose and Nadira — and a token male David Abraham, whose charisma was such that marriage was unable to contain him to one female, but he always remained the toast of the town and the most-invited man in Mumbai’s soigné cinema soirées. Abraham was also known as “Uncle David,” and he charmed the birds from the trees until a stroke robbed him of his speech.
You get the impression that Ben-Moshe is really desperate to push his point showcasing these Jewish divas as his restless camera darts from pillar to post chockfull of original footage and talking heads that prattle away volubly about the triumphs of their proud community. And although the films they discuss are not necessarily the most well known to mainstream audiences, Shalom provides solid entertainment as a taster of Jewish-led Bollywood films of the last century.
This is a far cry from the director’s previous work Code of Silence, which raised the lid on child sex abuse in Melbourne’s Orthodox Jewish community. Here we learn how a few thousand Jews lived peaceably amongst the Muslim and Hindu majorities. They were the long-established sect of Bene Israelis, and also Jews from Iraq. Sulochana was actually called Ruby Myers. She captured the imagination of her male co-stars with her dusky beauty seen mostly in animated stills, as footage of her silent films is hard to come by but includes the remarkable 1927 Wild Cat of Bombay, where she does a ‘Kate Blanchett’, playing multiple female and male roles in this cult extravaganza. Esther Abraham, hailed from Calcutta and was known by her stage name of Pramila. Her marriage to a Muslim produced the actor-playwright Haider Ali, who provides a lively account of how the different religious communities got on like a house on fire, back in the day.
The film’s final glamorous star was Nadira (Florence Ezekiel), who played opposite Dilip Kumar as ‘the vamp’ – simply a female who fluttered her eyelids and wore high heels – during the 1950s and ’60s with films like Aan. These stars were quick to learn from their Hollywood peers and provided a new kind of emancipated female in contrast to the submissive characters of the era.
Shalom Bollywood skims over a great deal of detail surrounding Hindu language issues the stars encountered but as a fun and lightly informative flick through the era’s silent cinema and the ‘Golden Age’ of film it’s certainly provides insight. MT
SCREENING DURING UK JEWISH FILM FESTIVAL | 9 – 26 NOVEMBER 2017 | NATIONWIDE