Three years after its release, I have finally had a chance to watch all of Shalom Bollywood, the much-touted documentary on the Jewish stars (or a handful of them, anyway) who entered Hindi cinema between the 1920s and the early ’50s. But I had seen such good trailers and so much preview material for this film on the great Shalom Bollywood website, it was almost as though I had watched it before. I also had read plenty of reviews, quite a few of which can be found on their website, too. And unfortunately, there is really nothing more that I can say about the film in any general, full review of my own. I had hoped that I could at least pretend to have a special perspective because of my “Jewish heritage” (because I am supposedly a “Jewish” New Yorker), but I actually had very little in the way of Jewish cultural education while growing up and my childhood was also completely lacking in the Jewish religion. (Neither of my parents was a believer!) In fact, when I saw in Shalom Bollywood how much some of the Jewish stars of Hindi cinema were devoted to the Jewish faith, it merely reminded me how much I wasn’t! So, I decided that it would not work well if I tried to write this review from the angle of personal Jewish pride.
Shalom Bollywood does contain good information about the individual stars, some of it given through decent interviews with either the stars’ relatives/descendants or, in one case, the star, herself. It was certainly nice to encounter the recollections of Pramila in interviews that were apparently conducted very late in her life. Then we are treated to extensive interviews throughout the film with her son, Haider Ali, who is also a contemporary actor and scriptwriter. We also get to see extensive interviews with the film star Miss Rose’s daughter, Cynthia Khalak-Dina, and granddaughter, Rachel Reuben, who is also a contemporary film editor.
Another feature of Shalom Bollywood that I especially appreciated was the glimpses that it gave us of some of the best song sequences that most of these stars were in. Unfortunately, “glimpses” is the correct word, since no full songs could be used. The snippets of song and dance were used creatively, injected into the narrative at different times. But I thought it would be nice for people see, and reflect upon, each of these songs in its entirety.
So, that’s what I am doing in the rest of this post: I’m sharing clips of the full songs here and adding a little commentary, reflecting on either something said in the film or something that occurred to me separately. (By the way, some of these will be familiar to longtime fans of Hndi cinema, but I don’t think most people reading this post could have seen all of them. At any rate, I feel that it certainly must always be a treat to encounter these numbers, whether you’ve never seen them or have seen them many times.) I am also going to link the titles of the films to a place where you can watch them. (Most of those videos were prepared by Tom Daniel aka Tommydan. A few were not, and the quality of those other ones is more questionable. But I’ll warn you where that happens.)
Before I proceed, I also want to mention that I know that one actress is conspicuously missing at the beginning of the list, although she definitely belongs there. That is Sulochana aka Ruby Myers. She was the first of the great Jewish Hindi film actresses, but since she made her splash in silent films and early talkies, there is little in the way of available songs to show. In fact, most of the film footage of her in general simply does not exist anymore. To compensate for this in Shalom Bollywood, we are treated to cute animations with photos of her head above drawings of her body, etc. There is some discussion of one of her somewhat later films (with a brief clip from it) and other things she did in the late 1940s, but it doesn’t include a song that you can see her in. But I will post one here – in appropriate chronological order – where you can at least see her on the sidelines. For now, I want to get to two great songs starring a couple of actresses who followed her.
1. Pramila (Esther Victoria Abraham) in Basant (1942) – I was actually pleasantly surprised to see that this was the video clip of Pramila most prominently featured in Shalom Bollywood. I reviewed Basant a few years ago and I included this clip in that post too, but I still might not have given Pramila the full credit that she deserved because I had decided to focus on the Three Mumtazes. But under that post, a commenter named Anup Semwal emphatically stated that “Pramila as Meena Devi overshadowed everybody on screen.” And he might very well be right! Much as I like Mumtaz Shanti and Mumtaz Ali, and fun though it was to see Madhubala’s childhood debut as Baby Mumtaz, it could be argued that Pramila overshadowed every one in acting skills as well as beauty. By the way, Mumtaz Ali also looks beautiful in this dance (I once saw someone comment – and others agree – that he “dances like a woman” – which isn’t necessarily a bad thing), but Pramila looks even better! The music (by Pannalal Ghosh and Anil Biswas) and the dance are great too!
2. Miss Rose (referred to in the film as Rose Ezra but on the website as Rose Musleah) in Nai Kahani (1943) – This is the only film I’m mentioning in this list that I have not seen, and Miss Rose is the only star featured in Shalom Bollywood whom I did not know about. As we are told in Shalom Bollywood, she was Pramila’s cousin and was responsible for giving Pramila her first big break. Although she obviously made a number of appearances before Nai Kahani, this is the film of hers that gets talked about in Shalom Bollywood most extensively, and we are provided with some very nice glimpses of it, too. It was made in 1943, one year after the one with Pramila. Unfortunately, the copy of the flim that I can link to here is not very good. It’s technically a bit screwed up and hard to watch. Because of that and the fact that there are no English subtitles (which I still need for the most part), I haven’t rushed to watch it, myself. But anyone who feels up to it should certainly give it a try, since it is apparently historically significant. The clip of the song below isn’t so bad to watch, but when I played it with my headphones on, I found that the sound came out through only one channel. But it’s still certainly worth a viewing – the dance is very nice!
3. Sulochana (Ruby Myers) seen on the sidelines (and this is where I am cheating) in a song from Jugnu (1947) – Of course, the true star of this song is Latika, aka Gope’s wife. I posted about this song more than seven and a half years ago. Somewhat pertinent to the subject matter here, I was at first under the impression, based on some wrong information that I had read, that Latika was Jewish. The true story about that was very different – she had a complicated religious upbringing involving Christians and Buddhists, and she became a Jehovah’s Witness. So I had to take “Jewish” out of the title (though I obviously left it in the URL). But as I pointed out after correcting this information, there was a prominent Jewish actress in this scene; that is, Sulochana. You can see a great shot of her at 3:25 to 3:28. In Shalom Bollywood, there is a part where they talk about Sulochana’s role in Jugnu, and they show a clip of her in a scene that became somewhat controversial, because she encourages the admiration of a younger man. As we are told by the narrator at this point, even in the late 1940s, she still managed to stir controversy!
4. “Uncle” David (David Abraham Cheulkar) in Boot Polish (1954) – David is the one classic male actor prominently featured in Shalom Bollywood. I loved the film Boot Polish and I very much enjoyed his performance there. I did not realize that, as it mentions in Shalom Bollywood, this was the film that really made him. And in Shalom Bollywood, there is also some discussion about this song, “Nanhe Mune Bache Teri,” which I also happen to love. We are told some interesting things about David as a personality, that he was considered extremely charismatic and was always the life of the party. There was some talk about his being a diminutive man with a huge personality. I think that description might be a bit hackneyed, but I suppose it fit. It was interesting to read about, at any rate.
5. Nadira (Farhat or Florence Ezekiel) in Shree 420 (1955) – And now, last and greatest, it’s time to present the Queen! There is a lot of discussion about her role in Aan, but we are given glimpses of that role through dramatic clips rather than slices of songs. Curiously, we are presented with a few slices of songs from Aan, but they are ones starring Nimmi. I have to admit, I wasn’t quite sure why they did that. But then when the subject moves on to Shree 420, we are treated to Nadira, herself, in all her glory, via a good chunk of this fantastic dance:
6. Nadira in Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayee (1960) – The song “Dil Kisko Doon” has been stored on my pretty much now-defunct YouTube channel for close to eleven years. This was one of a bunch of videos sent to me by Tom Daniel, long before I ever had a chance to see the full movie and before I even knew about it. And I knew of a few other songs from this film for quite a while before I finally watched it in its entirety. In fact, this is the Hindi film that I have watched most recently, within the last month or so. The copy that I found was not technically great (there are those aspect ratio problems, etc.), but I could follow it well enough and it did have English subtitles. It was a pretty good film, and it was pretty fresh in my mind when I watched Shalom Bollywood. So it was a nice coincidence that this song was used as extensively as it was. The scene does not appear during just one sequence of Shalom Bollywood but is scattered throughout a long expanse. We are even treated to a glimpse of Helen from this dance during a much earlier segment, describing wild, partying times for Miss Rose and/or Pramila back in the 1930s and early ’40s! But, of course, we get to enjoy longer glimpses of Nadira during the Nadira part.
There is some mention in Shalom Bollywood about Nadira being a bit too type-cast as the vamp/villain, but on the other hand, she certainly seemed to enjoy those roles. And she played them so well! While Dil Apna Aur Preet Parayee is probably best known for its stars, Raj Kumar and, especially, Meena Kumari (and this particular dance is, of course, best known for Helen), it’s arguable that in many scenes, Nadira steals the show. Her irritable/jealous expressions during this “Dil Kisko Doon” scene are just so perfect! One almost cannot avoid using the cliche that there was no one like her. That might be why – if I am not mistaken – Nadira is the best-known among the Jewish “Bollywood” actresses, by far. And when I think about Nadira, I almost want to retract something that I said at the beginning of this write-up, because she might very well be enough to give even me a little Jewish pride.