The hidden Jewesses of Indian cinema

Most of the actresses of the silent Indian cinema were Jewesses, claims Kenneth X Robbins in News Minute (referring to an earlier article).The identity of some actresses is contested even today. But the careers of these westernised girls was cut short with the advent of ‘talkies’: none could speak Hindi or Urdu. (With thanks: Michelle; Tom)

The actors were mostly Baghdadi Jewish
women and the rest were from the Bene Israel community, not the Cochini
community. That community was small, did not speak Hindi or Urdu, and
lived far from the film making cities of Bombay and Calcutta. A single
Baghdadi family contributed greatly to Indian films, by giving us the
actress-producer Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham), her sister the
actress Romila (Sophie Abraham), and her cousin the starlet Rose (Rose
Musleah). Pramila’s son Haider Ali is an actor, who is best known as the
co-writer of the blockbuster film Jodhaa Akbar.


The actress-producer Pramila was also the first Miss India.


Baghdadi Jewish actresses were known by
single Western names (Lillian, Rose), Hindu names (Arati Devi, Pramila,
Sulochana) or Muslim names (Firoza Begum, Nadira) rather than the ones
identifying them as Jews. Lillian’s birth name was Lillian Ezra.

In India, the Bene Israel often referred
to themselves in two ways. They used one or two “Biblical” names or
“Biblical” names followed by a “Maharashtrian” surname identifying their
ancestral Konkani village. In the movies, they were billed as David or
David Abraham rather than David Abraham Cheulkar or Joseph David rather
than Joseph David Penkar.

Simply identifying Jews has not been
easy. Asha Bhende (once Lily Ezekiel) and Pearl Padamsee (whose mother
was a Baghdadi Jew) are actresses who have used the last names of their
non-Jewish husbands. Asha Bhende was also a prominent academic, whose
works include Demographic and Socio Economic Characteristics of Jews in India.

Actresses like Zeenat Amat and Helen were
not Jewish as some think. The backgrounds of Azurie, Leela Chitnis,
Patience Cooper, Ermeline, Rinku Jaiswal, Kitty Kelly, Kamlesh Kumari,
and Sabita Devi are contested even today and I seek more information
about them. Was Vimala, whose birth name was Marcia Solomon and who is
never mentioned in the discourse on Jewish actresses, Jewish?

Read article in full 

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  • A friend of mine has confirmed that Lillian Ezra now lives happily with all her family in Israel, and lived in London for a long time after her brief movie carreer.


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