Back in the early days of Bollywood, Jewish actresses and performers reigned, with many becoming the first true superstars of the burgeoning film industry. The new documentary Shalom Bombay is now bringing these stars back into the spotlight.
“I knew there were Indian Jews, but that there were Jewish Bollywood superstars was a surprise,” director Danny Ben-Moshe, who is based in Australia, recently told the Times of Israel. Ben-Moshe added that he had never watched many Bollywood movies, but that his interest was captured when he read the 2006 obituary of Nadira. The actress, who was born Florence Ezekiel, captivated audiences in the 1950s in films like Aan and Shree 420.
Ben-Moshe originally began thinking about doing a film on Nadira’s life and rise to fame but expanded the concept to include other actresses as he began learning more about the early days of the Hindi film industry. Actresses like Pramila (born Esther Abraham) and Sulochana (nee Ruby Myers) dominated the box office in the 1930s and even ran their own production companies — an unheard of thing for women of that era.
The reason for rise of these stars was two-fold. Aside from their obvious talent, the early generation of Jewish actresses also did not have to navigate the cultural and religious restrictions many of their Hindu and Muslim counterparts faced.
“When Indian cinema began 100 years ago it was taboo for Hindu and Islamic women to perform on screen, so Indian Jewish women, who were more liberal and progressive, took on female lead roles, which they then dominated for decades,” notes the film’s official website.
Shalom Bombay debuted at the Mumbai International Film Festival last fall and Ben-Moshe said it will be screening at other festivals in the coming months. You can watch the trailer for the film below.