Review: Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema
Many Cineluxe readers will know that Bollywood—the Hindi-language film industry based in Mumbai (formerly Bombay, hence the term “Bollywood”)—is huge; a significant segment of Indian cinema, which produces the largest amount of feature films in the world. But how many know that Jews, and more specifically Indian Jewish women, played a key part in the origin of Indian moviemaking?
I certainly didn’t, until chancing upon the 2017 documentary Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema, now available on Amazon Prime. (The term “Bollywood” was coined in the 1970s.) Written and directed by Danny Ben-Moshe,
Shalom Bollywood tells the story of why Jews were so crucial to the development of Indian cinema from its origins more than 100 years ago.
Amid the more than one billion Hindus, over 300 million Muslims, and millions of Christians in India lived 3,000 Jews. They had first begun settling in India more than 2,000 years previously, fleeing the Roman invasion of Israel, and major migrations took place in the 1600s through 1800s. The Jews were assimilated into Indian culture, yet maintained their Jewish identity.
At the dawn of the Indian moviemaking era it was taboo for Hindi and Muslim women to perform in public. Men would play the female roles. But Indian Jewish women had no such cultural restrictions on performing, and as one of Shalom Bollywood’s narrators notes, “their high cheekbones gave them the popular ‘Hollywood look.’ And the low-light filming conditions of the time meant their lighter skin was an
BOLLYWOOD AT A GLANCE
A fascinating look at the tremendous impact India’s tiny Jewish population had on the creation of that country’s Bollywood film industry.
Black & white footage is often surprisingly detailed & textured, with rich gradations of blacks, whites & grays. Color footage tends to be warm yet not overly vivid, almost akin to Technicolor.
Sound quality is clear and well-mixed, serving the dialogue and music well.
advantage.” With artful makeup and clothing and the ability to speak Hindi, the Jewish women were easily convincing in playing the roles of a wide range of female characters.
Rather than presenting a comprehensive historical documentary, Shalom Bollywood focuses on the careers of four of Indian cinema’s greatest female stars from the 1940s to 1960s: Sulochana (Ruby Myers), Pramila (Esther Abraham), Miss Rose (Rose Ezra), and Nadira (Florence Ezekiel), as well as David Abraham Cheulkar, a slight, balding Jewish-Indian character actor who nonetheless possessed charismatic screen presence. It’s literally easy to see why the women rose to stardom—they were mesmerizing on screen.
The film is divided into three acts. The first act sticks most closely to a standard documentary format, laying out the historical beginnings of Indian cinema and how and why Jews came to have such a prominent role both in front of and behind the camera (where many Indian-Jewish men also worked). This segment charts the rise of Sulochana (“the one with the beautiful eyes”), Pramila (the first Miss India in 1947), and Miss Rose, offering a rich selection of film footage and interviews with the stars themselves as well as with husbands, relatives, friends, and business associates.
Sulochana, Pramila, and Miss Rose popularized the role of the vamp in Indian cinema, the temptress who attempts to win over the heart of the hero, who is often torn between the seductions of the vamp and the attentions of the heroine. The vamp became a key element of Indian movies. Director Ezra Mir (born Edwyn Meyers) introduced the first onscreen kiss to Indian
cinema, which caused an outrage among censors, and the banning of movie kisses for decades.
The films leaned heavily on the “all singing, all dancing, all drama” format, which began in 1931 in India’s first talking picture, Alam Ara (Light of the World). Shalom Bollywood conveys the look of the era’s films beautifully. The black & white footage is
surprisingly detailed and textured in many instances, with rich gradations of blacks, whites, and grays. The color footage has a warm yet not overly-vivid palette, almost akin to Technicolor in some instances. The sound quality is clear and well-mixed, serving the dialogue and music well—and, oh, the music! The singing, dancing, and performances are captivating. Shalom Bollywood makes me want to see and hear more, especially Ashok Kumar, who, as a narrator remembers, “Could really belt out the notes.”
Act One also features a wide variety of movie stills, posters, and advertisements, historical footage, playbills, shots of old movie theaters, and other material. Director Ben-Moshe clearly dug deeply to find this material. My one quibble (which I’ve noted about other historical documentaries): At times, Shalom Bollywood resorts to animation to illustrate its points, and let’s just say it’s not Pixar-level. I get it—footage can be hard to come by (according to Wikipedia, no known print of Alam Ara exists)—but it adds an element of cheesiness to an otherwise wonderfully-done production.
By the 1940s, Sulochana was branching out into production with her company, Silver Films. Some were hits, others flopped, but as the film notes, she continued to smash existing taboos. By then it wasn’t all singing and dancing, as 1940s filmmakers documented India’s struggle for independence, which happened in 1947.
Act Two looks at what Shalom Bollywood calls “The Golden Era,” beginning in the 1950s. By now, Mumbai was a center of Indian cinema and Nadira was its newest and biggest star. The 1952 epic Aan (released as The Savage Princess in the US and UK) was the first post-independence film to achieve global status. In 1954, it was followed by another hit, Shree 420, and the decade saw the rise of David Abraham, who initially tried law school but “was bitten by the bug and had to be in front of the camera.” By this time the taboos against Indian women appearing in movies had broken down even more, and the previous generation of Jewish stars began to feel competition from a new generation. Producers now wanted more “Indian-looking” actresses, and aging stars like Sulochana and Pramila were shunted into roles as mothers and other older women.
Act Three shifts from the historical to the personal, charting the lives of the stars and their families as the actresses’ careers fade, a younger generation blossoms, and Indian cinema evolves into the present day. The Jewish heritages of many of them remain strong. For example, Sulochana’s family decides to move to Pakistan but she stays behind, wanting to remain in a more Jewish environment.
I don’t want to give away too many spoilers but as can be imagined, time and circumstances pull many of the actors apart. Others stay in India and by the 2000s, many have passed away, some alone and in poverty. As Nadira observed: “When you are famous and successful, you are surrounded by loving people. But they disappear the moment you lose your stardom.” Yet there’s also a 50-years-in-the-making success story (again, I’ll back off the spoilers). The film moves from rapidly focusing on historical events and careers to slowing its pace and lingering on the stories of the people originally involved and their families and children.
Although the Jewish influence on Indian cinema is part of its heritage, Bollywood is a far different industry today, as film editor Rachel Reuben, granddaughter of Miss Rose points out: “When I was turning 30, it hit me. It does not matter if you’re woman or man, white or black, Hindu, Muslim, anything. It doesn’t matter. Here was a force of people and they were all coming together to do one thing. And I found that very, very powerful.”
Shalom Bollywood is an illuminating, well-researched, heartfelt, and at times just-plain-delightful movie that deserves more attention. Highly recommended.