Among the many pernicious stereotypes surrounding American Jewry is that they control Hollywood. Unlike other stereotypes however, there is some truth to this. At the turn of the 20th century, when the film medium was still in its infancy, many shied away from it as it was then negatively linked with peepshows – an early form of commercial cinema in which viewers could see a sequence of erotic images through a private booth. The community in America that saw massive potential in film and were progressive enough to peer over its then controversial nature was the Jewish community. In fact, the first film studios (20th Century Fox, Warner Bros. and others) were and still are, to this day, headed by Jewish people.
A strikingly similar story, one that hasn’t been revealed till now, took place on the other side of the world.
As it so happens, Hollywood’s distant twin city, Bollywood, was also molded by a Jewish community albeit Bombay’s Indian Jewish community.
Like Americans, India’s Hindu and Muslim women thought film was a dirty business and vehemently refused to expose themselves on screen. Bombay Jewish women however, who belonged to the city’s small but visibly active Baghdadi Jewish community, shared their American counterparts’ progressive values and thus became Bollywood’s first female stars!
This forgotten story was unearthed not by a Bollywood scholar but by Jewish professor/filmmaker Danny Ben Moshe of Deakin University, Australia who spent years creating a documentary on the groundbreaking subject matter.
As far as documentaries about film or Jewish history are concerned, Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema is essential viewing.
The end result, Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema, which had its world premiere at the JIO Mami Film Festival last week, is a film that every Bollywood fan and devoted cinephile needs to see. It starts off introducing us to the female silent screen stars of the Hindi film industry (all of whom, Jewish) Sulochana, the first female mega star of the Bombay film industry, Pramila, an internationally recognized star who was also the first Ms. India and her cousin, the thirties screen siren, Miss Rose.
Then came the talkies and the femme fatale, Nadira, who puts Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford to shame with her fiery dance moves, steely glare and haute demeanor. She is unarguably the reason the Raj Kapoor classic, Shree 420, is still talked about.
So as to better understand these stars as well as add a human touch to the documentary, Ben Moshe interviews the stars’ living family members, the most memorable of whom is Pramila’s son, Haider Ali, the screenwriter of the blockbuster film, Jodhaa Akbar and a self-identifying Jewish Muslim!
Rest assured, Shalom Bollywood engages from start to finish.
The visuals also add to the film’s pull. Ben Moshe takes a page from Bollywood’s all-spice approach to cinema by imbuing his own film with an exciting tableau of neon-kissed animation, archival footage of old films and elements of cinéma vérité.
There’s also a beautiful streak of melancholy running through some of the animation, perhaps to complement the darker tone the film takes.
All this theatricality however is unfortunately marred by the out-of-place footage of struggling Indians whom are inaccurately depicted throughout the film as representing the average Indian cinemagoer.
For a professor who spent a considerable amount of time in India shooting and assembling this documentary together, his lack of understanding of the Indian social milieu is befuddling. The Indian lower class doesn’t have access to sanitary water, let alone a multiplex ticket. In the grand scheme of things, this a minor quibble of course but one that frustratingly (at least for me that is) jags the otherwise smooth narrative.
As far as documentaries about film or Jewish history are concerned, Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian Cinema is undoubtedly essential viewing.
For more information on Shalom Bollywood, visit their website: http://www.shalombollywood.com/