Happy Hanukkah! Let’s Talk Filmi Jews in India!

This is a sort of updated post, but really totally new.  I put it up for Rosh Hashanah a couple years ago, but back then I didn’t even know Aditya Roy Kapoor was Jewish, so it was woefully incomplete.  Not to say that this post is complete, but it is at least more complete than the previous one.

There are essentially 4 Jewish communities in India.  First, the same kind of community as anywhere else in the world, European heritage Jews who fled Pogroms over the past few hundred years and landed up everywhere in the world except for Europe.  Second, the Baghdadi Jewish community, from present day Iraq who settled in India hundreds of years ago.  Third, the Cochin or Malabar Jews, who settled in present day Kerala possibly as long ago as King Solomon’s time, 587 BCE.  And fourth, the Bene Isreal community, who lived in small villages along the coast near Bombay and have been in India so long that it is suggested they were one of the Lost Tribes of Isreal.  All of these communities contributed in their own way to the film industries.  Like every religious/cultural minority in India, they found in film an open industry, a place that would welcome them instead of shutting them out.

Ruby Myer/Sulochana was one of the first top movie stars in India, discovered when she was working as a telephone operator.  She was the queen of the early silents, playing the type of modern working urban heroines that matched her life off screen.  When sound came in, she took some time off to learn Hindi (growing up in Pune, presumably she only knew Marathi), and then came back with a bang.  Playing femme fatales onscreen all the way through to the 1930s, and then transitioning to mother and character roles.

 

There was also Firoza Begum, from the Kerala industry and Cochin Jewish population.  Not as popular, couldn’t find a good video of her, but felt like the Malayalis should be represented.

After them came Nadira!  Also part of the Baghdadi Jewish population.  Nadira also specialized in a little more modern, a little more wild women.  She was launched in Aan, which is a super super fun fantasy fairy tale romance, in which she plays a fierce Princess tamed by wild rebel Dilip Kumar.

(Such careful flower placement!)

After being the evil temptress to Dilip Kumar, she went on to be the evil temptress to Raj Kapoor in Shree 420, only this time she wasn’t redeemed.

Nadira kept working past her “sexy item girl” era, graduating to “spunky mother”, most famously in Julie where she has to deal with her daughter getting pregnant.

 

India’s very first Miss India in 1947 was Jewish, Esther Victoria Abraham stage name “Pramila”, daughter of a Baghdadi and Kerala Jew, from Calcutta.  She went on to star in “Stunt” films, like Fearless Nadia.  And to produce her own films, becoming one of the first successful female film producers.  Here she is in one of her hit films from 1942.

 

“Pramila” contributed to a second generation in the film industry, her son Haider Ali who plays small roles in many films, and helped write the script for Jodha-Akbar.  The role I think I most recognize him from is as Shahrukh’s father in Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani.

Besides these Indian Jewish famous movie people, there is also J.F.R. Jacob who commanded the Indian army during the Bangladeshi war.  And Anish Kapoor, the British sculpture with a Baghdadi Jewish heritage mother who designed Chicago’s Cloud Gate sculpture (or “The Bean”) as seen in this song from Dhoom 3 (it’s the thing that looks like a giant mirrored bean).

 

And, of course, Aditya Roy Kapoor!  Hindi film’s “nice Jewish boy”.  His mother was another beauty queen, and a dance, Salome Aaron was her stage name.  She was in one movie, Tu Hai Mere Zindagi, but was never really interested in an acting career.

 

And now there are her children, most especially Aditya Roy Kapoor, keeping the Jewish tradition alive on film.

 

The Jewish community in India has been steadily shrinking for the past several decades since the founding of Isreal.  But also, I suspect, because more and more people are “passing” as something else.  Moving to the city, intermarrying, slowly losing their identity.  Which is why I am positive this list is not complete, that there are other Baghdadi, Kerala, Bene Isreal, and European Jews I just don’t know about who are working in the industry today, and in the past, but without making their identity obvious to outsiders.

However, I am sure in their own warm way, the film industry is welcoming to these minorities.  For instance, the reason I knew today was the start of Hanukkah, Amitabh’s conscientious twitter message.

(You must click on it and see the second image in full.  Really, it’s worth it.)

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3 thoughts on “Happy Hanukkah! Let’s Talk Filmi Jews in India!

  1. Very interesting read, thanks. I do wonder, however, whether all these people you name identify as Jewish, since self-identification is supposed to be the determining factor nowadays. I don’t think it has anything to do with trying to “pass” as someone else, just that they don’t think of themselves as belonging to a particular community. Saif, for instance is quite vocal about being a Muslim, and only a Muslim, but he could equally well claim to be a Hindu because of his mother, only he never does (unlike Salman). He is also quite specific that all his children are only Muslim, though their mothers are not Muslims (unlike SRK). So is it really up to an outsider to determine whether someone is or is not Jewish, depending on their parentage? If they are not claiming it themselves, and practicing Judaism, how can anyone else say so?

    I am quite confused about Aditya Roy Kapoor. Isn’t he Siddharth Roy Kapoor’s brother? Is he supposed to be a Jew as well? And what about their third brother? Did they all have different mothers but the same father?

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    • First, yes, I must not have worded it clearly, all of the Kapur boys are half-Jewish.

      Second, and I am no means an expert on this and I hope one of our Jewish commentators will leap in, Judiasm kind of overlaps between a religion and an ethnic group. So you could say that someone is “Jewish” in the same way that you might say they are “Desi” (not Indian, that being a national identity, but the ethnic identity). And you could also say that they are “Jewish” in the same way that you could say someone is “Hindu”.

      There are also elaborate rules in orthodox Judiasm as to what makes you actually “Jewish”. So depending on who you talk to, no one is Jewish unless their mother (not their father, he doesn’t count) is Jewish. Or anyone is Jewish who goes through a process of conversion. Or anyone is Jewish if they have some vague family background and certain traditions that have carried over.

      And finally, because of various historical forces, being Jewish is something that people may not put front and center in their public lives, even if it is something that they follow in their private lives.

      But again, I am speaking as an outsider, I would love for someone to leap in who is actually a member of the community.

      On Tue, Dec 12, 2017 at 5:20 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Thanks, Margaret, for clearing up about the Kapurs. I have many Jewish friends from various branches/movements of Judaism, some born, some converted, so am quite familiar with the requirements to be considered “Jewish” according to their various definitions, whether culturally or religiously (like Isaac Asimov claiming to be a “Jewish atheist”). My question was simply, if these people themselves don’t think of themselves as Jewish, to whatever fraction, how can anyone else put such a label on them? For example, when Siddharth married Vidya Balan, they had only a Hindu ceremony, not a Hindu and a Jewish one (or maybe he figured he’d gone through enough marriage ceremonies already 🙂 ), while Malaika Arora and Arbaaz Khan, on the other hand, had both Christian and Muslim ceremonies. And more recently, Chaitanya Akkineni and Samantha had both Hindu and Christian ceremonies. This is one way people affirm their religious identity during major milestone events in their life. Similarly, Babita, Kareena, and Karisma always attend midnight mass at Christmas time, because their grandmother (Babita’s mother) was Christian. You can think of this as more of a cultural identity than a religious one.

        And, you may not be aware of this, but India happens to be the only country in the world that has never discriminated against Jews (or anyone else for that matter), for at least a couple of thousand years, so there is no reason anyone would feel hesitant about acknowledging his/her Jewish heritage in India.

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