Great Jewish Stars were at the heart of Bollywood

Danny Ben Moshe, the award-winning documentary film maker has spent a long, substantive time researching and piecing together the impact and influence of Jewish superstars in Bollywood through his movie: “Shalom Bollywood: the untold story of Indian Cinema”. The film tells the 2,000-year-old Indian Jewish community and its formative place in the Indian film industry.

In this interaction with CSP he speaks about his journey from Jewish public policy to academia and then to film making, aspects of India-Israel soft power relations, and the opportunities and challenges going forward:

Can you explain to us your journey and why and how you took to film making?

I worked in Jewish public policy in Israel and the diaspora, and then went into academia where I was an Associate Professor and director of a research institute in Melbourne, Australia. We wanted to share some of our research through film as well as traditional academic forms, and I went to see a film maker to get advice and help with that. I had a longstanding interest in documentaries which I had eagerly watched on both TV and at film festivals, and while we were talking I mentioned some documentary ideas I had. To cut a long story short, that process led us to make a film together and I was hooked. That was my first film back in 2005, “The Buchenwald Ball” about a group of Holocaust survivors in Melbourne.  Almost 15 years later, I have now made about 11 films. For a while I carried on as an academic with film making on the side and then performed as half academic, half film maker, but a few years ago I became a full time film maker.


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

When was the first time you visited India? What has fascinated you about India?

I first went to India soon after my first film, probably in 2006 or 2007. The initial idea was to explore the possibility of making a film about the Jewish actress Nadira who had recently passed away. I wanted to explore what material existed for such a story and who I may interview for such a film, but as a Westerner and first-time visitor to India, I was captivated by a totally different society and civilisation to what I was used to. The mass of people, colours, cacophony of sounds, were something I had never experienced before.  As I delved into India’s Jewish story, and met local Jews, I asked them about-Semitism, or Jew hatred. They all looked at me oddly either to ask me to clarify what anti-Semitism is or why anyone would hate them. India, I was delighted to discover, is probably unique in being the only country in the world where the Jewish community has not experienced any anti-Semitism. As a Jew I found that fascinating and heartening. It made me want to delve deeper into India society and the dynamics that made it tick and explained its Jewish story.

What prompted and intrigued you to study the role of Jews in Indian cinema and how long and arduous was the journey?

The journey began, as many great journeys often do, in an unplanned way. In my University Institute I had an Indian Post-Graduate student working for me who had encountered a few personal problems, such as housing. Knowing that internationals students often don’t known how to navigate the Australian system, &/or landlords try and take financial advantage of them, I stepped in and helped resolve the situation. It was really no big deal, but her father, whom I had met on a visit to Australia, was extremely appreciative that I had helped her out. He started sending me Iittle gifts, such as pens or key rings via his daughter.  These were unnecessary but apparently quite an Indian thing to do. One day the student, Devaki, walked into my office and said, “This is from my father,” and this time, the item he had sent was an obituary about Nadira with a reference to her being Jewish. As the father knew I was Jewish he thought it would be of interest. I had always known there had been Jews in India, but had no idea that there was this Jewish superstar in Bollywood, and that’s really how my “Shalom Bollywood” journey started.

That journey proved to be very long and very arduous. It took me over 10 years to make the film. This was for several reasons.

Firstly, it was very early on in my film career and I was taking on a massive story.

Secondly, from a financial point of view, I was unable to generate film finance. Usually the way it works with documentaries I make for example for Australian TV or British TV, is that they are publicly funded but they must have content about their country i.e., Australia or Britain. This that was not an option with my ‘Shalom Bollywood film”.

Thirdly, it was also challenging because all the Jewish stars had passed away. I needed to find people who knew them and could speak about them. It took me years and I eventually tracked down Ruby, an elderly lady in Sydney and relative of Sulochana; Diana, a relative of David Abraham in Canada, and Rachel Reuben, the former model who is a relative of Rose, in Mumbai. I then had to travel to all these places to interview them which took time and money.

Fourthly, it was a major struggle to track down archive of the Jewish stars that I needed to tell this story. For example, I knew there would be interviews on India radio with the Jewish stars or photos of theme at the Phalke awards, but ultimately had to give up on my search for these and find other ways to tell the story. But necessity is the mother of invention, which is why my film utilises animation and storyboards, which turned out to be effective, fresh and find storytelling devices. However, I wanted the viewers of my film to go away with the sense they have seen the films of the Jewish stars of India, so I included some fairly lengthy segments with excerpts from the films of old Jewish stars. Then the audience goes away with the feeling “Ah, I know Sulochana, I have seen her before. I know Pramila. I know Rose. I know David. I know Nadira”. And, you know, hopefully that is a way to remember them and keep them alive. 

Fifthly and finally, it was very arduous because, to be honest, the bureaucracy and even the government film organisations in India are very difficult to liaise with. I explicitly came against corruption where people would only provide relevant materials if I paid a bribe.


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

What are some of your noteworthy conclusions with respect to Jews in Indian Cinema?

I think it was a unique confluence of events that led Indian Jews to play the pioneering role they did in Indian cinema. Indian Jews were part of this very modern Anglo-Indian Jewish community at a time when cinema was beginning and it was taboo for Hindu and Islamic women to perform on screen. The Jewish community, and Jewish women in particular, were generally more progressive, and did not share these taboos. In addition to their place in Indian society, Indian Jews also had ties and familiarity with the West and its cinema. Physically, the (Baghdadi) Jewish women had the high cheeks bones and lighter skin that emulated the Hollywood look which made them perfect for the low light conditions of early India cinema. It was just one of those unique moments in history where the above factors came together leading Indian Jews to have the pivotal role they did.

The conclusion I reach is that the course of Indian cinema’s history would have been distinctly different, certainly in terms of time frame of developments, without these Jewish stars. But also perhaps without the development of some of the roles such as vamps and other archetypes of the Indian cinema, these characters and their casting would have been different, or would at least have evolved differently. The other conclusion that must be drawn is that as a tiny community, in its peak was only tens of thousands, the impact it had on Indian cinema and society was disproportionate to its size.

Today there is hardly any trace of Bollywood’s Jewish connection? Are there still many Jews in Indian cinema?

Well my first response to that is, even when the great Jewish actors were at the heart of Bollywood or Indian cinema, like Sulochana, Nadira, David, most people didn’t even knew that they were Jewish! When I spoke to cinema historians, journalists and others in India, they had no idea; they thought they might be Christians or Parsis. Today, there is no real trace of Jews in Bollywood other than their legacy and I don’t think we can underestimate that. So perhaps that Jewish presence is felt in the performances of contemporary character actors in the tradition of David or vamps in the tradition of Nadira and Pramila.

Today, Pramila’s son, the actor Haider Ali, who co-wrote “Jodha Akbar”, continues to write and act in Bollywood today. The Jewish choreographer Baba Herman, who is seen in my documentary on set, can often be found directing a dance scene in Bollywood today. But the Indian Jewish community is small, just a few thousand, and of course taboos on Hindu and Islamic women are long past, so the unique niche they filled is no longer there. And while she has left India, the granddaughter of famed 1930s actress Miss Rose, Rachel Reuben, continues her film work as an editor in New York.

Apart from acting, what are some of the other fields in which Jews played a significant role in Indian cinema as per your research?

Well, the biggest non-acting role was that by Joseph David Penkar, who wrote the first talkie in Indian cinema; that is a real milestone. It is no coincidence that it was a Jew, who comes from a community with a long tradition of literacy, after all we are the “People of the Book”. And of course, the late great Bunny Reuben, who was Raj Kapoor’s right hand man and publicist, a real giant in off-screen Indian cinema.


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

How would you define India-Israel soft power relations through cinema and TV? What are some of the opportunities and challenges going forward?

I think Bollywood and Indian cinema is a massive dimension of Indian soft power. Israeli cinema is also very significant. If you think in terms of “Waltz With Bashir” the documentary, or the current Netflix drama, “Shtisel”, these have surprising impact and influence, but are in no way close to Bollywood. Also, they often, in the form of “Waltz With Bashir” and massive Netflix hits like “Fauda”, are about the Israeli-Palestinian/Arab conflict, rather than distracting from it.  I don’t think too many popular Indian films and TV dramas would take the situation in Kashmir for their subject matter.

Israel’s soft power is far more in areas of technology, environment, agriculture etc, and my understanding is that there is great work going on between India and Israel at the present time in these spheres. In terms of opportunities moving forward, I think there is scope for an Israel-India film co-production. Israel very recently signed a co-production treaty between Israel and India and perhaps this is an area for collaboration for the benefit of soft power for both the countries. Indeed, I am currently trying to develop an Israel-India film coproduction based on my “Shalom Bollywood” story.

My film “Shalom Bollywood” had its world premiere at the Mumbai Film Festival where it was reviewed by a Hollywood reporter as “lively, upbeat and entertaining” and it was also screened as part of the Israel Country-In-Focus screening at the Government of India’s International Film Festival at Goa in 2018, where it got a standing ovation.  The film has been a massive hit on the Jewish and India film festival circuit around the world, bridging two cultures and finding common ground between the two civilisations.

Interestingly, when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited India, he held a special outreach with the Bollywood fraternity in Mumbai and the campaign was titled Shalom Bollywood. What are your thoughts on this?

I am familiar with this Netanyahu-Bollywood event because scenes from my documentary were screened at this Bollywood gathering, and it was a real honour for me to have that take place. I think “Shalom Bollywood” was right for this event because Shalom means “Hello” in Hebrew and it was Netanyahu saying “Hello” to the Bollywood fraternity, and it was also Israel, from its highest office, saying “Hello” to Indian cinema. If Bollywood is a word synonymous with India, Shalom is synonymous with Israel, so the name of this event was very apt.

Are you grooming any talent to pursue their passion in Indian cinema from Israel?

I am Jewish but actually an English Jew by birth. I have lived in Israel and hope to live there again, but am currently living in Australia where I have been for 20 years. But the world is a global village and I am looking to make a Jewish Indian drama and I hope it will be an Israel-India-Australia co-production.


Picture source : Danny Ben Moshe

Are there universities in Israel that teach film making and cover the India-Israeli connection in Indian cinema? Do you teach this aspect in these universities and are there any special courses?

There are some fantastic film schools in Israel.  There is the Sam-Spiegel Film and Television School in Jerusalem, the capital of Israel. And there is a film school in Tel Aviv University. I don’t know the specifics of what any of the above are teaching about India and Israel, but if you are studying world cinema, you can’t ignore Bollywood.

While I’d be honoured to work for any film school in Israel, I have no formal connections to any of them because, as I explained I am based in Australia. However, I teach short courses on Jewish films at different Institutions and museums in Australia and around the world, a lot based on my own films. I include “Shalom Bollywood” in these, which always generates a positive response and extensive discussion. 

In Eilat, the southernmost city of Israel, I believe every year there is a festival of Indian cinema. Israel is massive melting pot with people from over 100 countries, including India, and they stay in touch with India and its cinema. As my “Shalom Bollywood” documentary shows, films such as “Mother India”, a classic of Indian cinema, have played in Israel. The Eilat event is a big gathering for Indian Jews who would be showcasing latest films from India.

Who knows what will be in the future but I think we can say that the Israel-India relationship will get stronger and stronger. I hope cinema will be one dimension of that. And I hope I will be able to play a small part in that.

‘Shalom Bollywood: the Untold Story of Indian Cinema’ can be watched in Israel and India on demand at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/shalombollywood

You can find out more about Danny’s films at www.identity-films.com

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