When Indian cinema began 100 years ago it was taboo for Hindu and Islamic women to perform on screen, so female roles were played by men – sort of Monty Python or Shakespearian style. While the conservative nature of Hindu and Muslim societies shunned the notion of female performers, the Jewish community was more liberal and educated and willing to embrace the exciting new medium of film. The fact that Indian Jews were a lighter shade of brown made these women seem all the more suited for celluloid. However, because of their stage names people thought they were Muslims.
The story is told through the glamorous and often tumultuous lives of the famed Jewish actresses who, from the earliest days of Silent film through to the end of the twentieth century, passed the cinema queen baton onto each other and shaped what was to become the world’s largest film industry, including:
Other important Jewish figures in the history of Indian cinema who feature in the film include David Joseph Penkar who wrote the first talkie ALAM ARA in 1931 which set the template for Indian cinematic storytelling, Bunny Reuben, Raj Kapoor’s right hand man and arguably the industry’s greatest ever publicist, and the famed revered uncle figure of Indian cinema, David Abraham.
The film reveals how these Jewish stars, working with other Jews in Bollywood, pushed the boundaries of Indian cinema to make Bollywood what it is, and in so doing tells of many Bollywood firsts: the first dance, the first kiss, the first talkie and the first colour film.
This documentary bursts with music and colour. As none of the silent or early sound era films survived, retro style 2D animation is selectively used to give film stills and poster archive a cheeky Bollywood feel. The stories of the Jewish stars from the 1950s onwards are told through footage of the films they appeared in.
As in any good Bollywood film, music is a prominent feature. The film creatively exploits the synthesis of the Indian-Jewish themes so that the film’s music, for example, the classic Jewish tune hava nagila is played on the sitar, and Bollywood tunes in a Yiddish sounding clarinet.
Through the personal lives of the Jewish stars the film tells the broader Indian Jewish story. We visit the lush Konkan coast, a 20 minute boat ride from Mumbai’s famous Gateway of India Arch, to see the villages seemingly still stuck in time where the Bene Israel tribe lived for 2000 years before making the short journey to Bombay at the turn of the twentieth century. There we enter the grand synagogue of the Baghdadi Jewish community that migrated to India from across the Middle East in the 1800s.
The Jewish Bollywood story cannot be told without understanding the broader story of Hindi cinema which the film reveals. The Jewish actresses worked with the biggest producers, directors and actors of their time, so through their stories the film delves into the history of Indian cinema: the early male heart throbs, the big studios, and the leading directors – as tales unfold of dreams and ambition, success and failure, collaborations and rivalries, and love affairs and feuds. Present day senior Bollywood figures, including acting legend Rishi Kapoor, discuss the industry in general and the impact of the Jewish stars in particular.
The film reveals the highs of stardom, the fame, the fortune, but also how when physical beauty fades and industries change, careers end, money can run dry and loneliness and alcoholism become the norm, how religion can provide solace.
By exploring the story of the Jewish Bollywood greats SHALOM BOLLYWOOD also explores the theme of interfaith relations, in what is described as a land without anti-Semitism, the Jewish stars married Muslims and Hindus, harmoniously sharing in each other customs, as religious differences were put aside in the pursuit of a shared goal and passion: making great films.
As one generation gives way to another, SHALOM BOLLYWOOD reveals the story of Jews still working in Bollywood today, continuing the work of their parents and grandparents.
SHALOM BOLLYWOOD takes viewers on a journey enriched by magnificent colours and the many sounds of India in general and Jewish India in particular, providing an entry into synagogues, mosques and temples and present day Mumbai’s markets, street kids, squalor and high rises – and of course its cinemas.
SHALOM BOLLYWOOD is told with humour and insight and challenges the common understanding of what we mean by being a Jew and Indian. An all singing, all dancing documentary with swirling saris and colored yamalkas. A documentary about kosher papadams, bizarre costumes, religious co-existence, the odd elephant, big screen romance and 12 million cinema tickets a day. Just your standard Jewish themed documentary really.