In India during the 1920s and 1930s, you wouldn’t find Hindu or Muslim women acting in films. It was considered taboo and disreputable for women to show their bodies for strangers to watch on-screen. Male actors would largely take the role of women. The silent films in the early 20th-century featured all-male productions, with men wearing saris and playing women’s roles.
Dadasaheb Phalke, known as the Father of Indian cinema who made the first Indian film Raja Harishchandra, would even visit the red light district to scout for women to act in his films – but even women who would perform privately refused to do so in public.
It was all thanks to four Indian Jewish women, who were more liberal and open-minded, that stepped in to take on the female lead roles in the industry which they dominated for decades, pushing the boundaries and filling in the demand the Indian Film Industry had long desired for – and undoubtedly the audience. Indian Jewish actresses were recently given a spotlight in the 2017 feature-length documentary Shalom Bollywood where they explored the long-forgotten history of the Indian Jewish community’s impact in India and its influence on Bollywood.
As it stands, Jewish people make up a very small population across India with current estimates of 5,000 Jewish people living in the country today. But back in the 1940s, there were over 30,000 Jews in Mumbai alone. The Jewish communities of Bene Israelis and Baghdadi Jews from Iraq were more progressive and Anglicized, leading Jewish women to work outside the home. With fewer restrictions placed on Jewish women compared to their counterparts, four Indian Jewish actresses eventually filled the gap in Indian cinema, arising to become Bollywood’s first eminent stars in the industry.
They were known by their stage names – Sulochana, Miss Rose, Pramila, and Nadira.
The first actress that arrived on the scene was Ruby Myers, known by her screen name, Sulochana – Indian cinema’s first female superstar. Born in 1907 in Calcutta, she started out in silent-era films back in the 1920s. Sulochana’s stardom reached unparalleled heights with many of her popular 1920s silent era films remade as talkies in the 1930s and 1940s in which she also starred. One of her more notable roles was when she played eight characters in one film in the 1927 release “Wildcat of Bombay”. She was reported to have the first Rolls Royce in India and won the attention of Gandhi who used her images as part of his political campaigns. In 1973 Sulochana was conferred with India’s highest cinema award, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award for contribution to cinema. After her death in 1983, the Indian Government issued a stamp in her honor.
Following Sulochana’s footsteps was Rama Katroum Rose Musleah, popularly known as Miss Rose. Born in 1911 in Calcutta, Miss Rose was a dance teacher in her home city. It was after her divorce in the early 1930s that she decided to move to Mumbai to try her luck in acting. Rose quickly came to prominence in acting and social circles, performing the leading lady in many Hindi films where she largely played modern Indian women. In the late 1940s, Rose suffered a back injury that prevented her from acting for several months. It was during this time that Hindu and Muslim women were taking up significant acting roles that were no longer viewed as frowned upon. This led to Rose struggling to regain her place at the top of the billing. After an American airman proposed, she moved to America to settle with her husband in Los Angeles.
Next came Esther Victoria Abraham, known as Pramila. Born in Calcutta in 1916, Pramila was a teacher at a local Jewish school. Everything changed for her when she went to Mumbai to visit her cousin, Miss Rose herself who was already a budding star, on a movie set. The director was bemoaning that none of the actresses were tall enough – until he saw Pramila. Soon enough Pramila started acting, often playing the vamp in films, and became the first Miss India in 1947. She acted until her final year, at the age of 90 in 2006. Pramila married the Muslim actor Kumar, having starred together in several films, living in Jewish and Islamic coexistence.
Born Farhat Ezekiel in 1932, the actress adopted her stage name Nadira at the age of 12 for her Hindi film début in 1943 with a small role in Mauj. But her career sky-rocketed in 1952 when she played the Princess Rajshree opposite Dilip Kumar in the box office hit Aan. Nadira’s best-remembered role was when she played the villainous Maya in the 1955 classic Shree 420. With her fiery looks, distinctive chiseled features, and admonishing style, Nadira set the benchmark for being a vamp in Indian cinema. Nadira was the last of the Indian Jewish cinema, who died in 2006.
These four actresses were pioneers in the industry and laid the foundations for Hindu and Muslim women to act in Bollywood – the roles once filled by Jewish women were no longer there. You can find out more about them in the feature-length documentary Shalom Bollywood, where they delve into the lives of the actresses and explore the theme of interfaith relations between Jewish stars and Muslims and Hindus, putting religious differences aside. You can also listen to The Jewish Queens of Bollywood podcast on BBC Sounds, where host Noreen Khan interviews people involved in the production of Shalom Bollywood, revealing why Jewish women were so uniquely placed to take Bollywood by storm, and why their influence has nearly been forgotten.
For more awesome history facts, follow our brand-new history Instagram account.
Get The Tempest in your inbox. Read more exclusives like this in our weekly newsletter!