From Bollywood to the Sands of Jerusalem
The death of Nadira, the great Indian movie star, marks the end of an era rich with Jewish actors. But the Jews of Mumbai are mourning more than her loss.
Reading about the life of Nadira, who died in Mumbai on February 8 at age 74, it is hard to keep in mind that it all happened in India and not Hollywood. The colorful stories about her are reminiscent of the American cinema queens of the late 40s and 50s; she was famous, among other things, for the way she arched her eyebrows, or, later, for her one too many drinks, alone in her modest apartment. And she was admired always for being an independent thinker, although this was arguably either a compliment or a polite euphemism. With her death, India lost its last great Jewish movie star.
Indeed, the fact of her Jewishness was mentioned in every one of her many obituaries. This constant reminder might itself arch a few eyebrows, were Mumbai (Bombay) not known for its love of its tiny Jewish population of 5,000. Whereas in Hollywood, a star’s religion, particularly her Jewishness, would likely not appear in the lead paragraph of her bio, in India, the statement pinpoints Jewishness as part of her identity.
Nadira was born Farhat (Florence) Ezikiel in 1932 into the prosperous, cultured and relatively Westernized community of Baghdadi Jewish immigrants to India. Discovered in her late teens, she was cast, to the great reluctance of her mother, in 1952 in the lead role in Aan, a Bollywood classic about a simple man winning over a haughty princess, opposite the then-reigning melodrama king, the great Dilip Kumar ( Muhammad Yusuf Khan, a Muslim from Afghanistan). It is said that while she was selected for her glowing skin, sharp features and European looks, she proved more than an intriguing beauty–she had a commanding presence on screen as well.
The movie’s success and her prowess in front of the cameras made her a star overnight, and the leading roles kept coming. In 1955, she starred in Shree 420 opposite the legendary Raj Kapoor. “Nadira’s lacquered, diamond-studded character comes across as a beacon of danger, with her eyes flashing fire and brimstone,” wrote one enchanted critic at the time.
In an obituary, a Bollywood reporter recalled: “Her smoking . . . with a cigarette holder became a fashion statement, although she maintained that she never smoked in real life.” One of her songs in the film, “Mud Mud Ke Na Dekh” (Don’t Look Back), remained a hit for decades. Nadira lore has it that her dress for this song was stitched so tight she couldn’t sit down. But “the agony was worth it,” she told an interviewer years later. “Even today, at the racetrack, people sing the song to me when they see me.”
After a while, she was cast not only as a leading lady but as a vamp and a villain, in roles that needed someone who could play a determined character, “her own woman.” Her friends say she didn’t mind, that she was proud of her ability to play these parts. “She had good looks,” Kumar has said, “but it wasn’t about that. She had crystal-clear thoughts. She was unusually present. She was always ahead of her times.”
Bollywood, like Hollywood, has always been filled with a disproportionately high number of Jews. Even in the golden days of the Mumbai Jewish community, in the few decades before 1947, when India gained independence and most Jews immigrated to Israel, it numbered only around 30,000. Jonathan Samuel Solomon, whose grandfather ran the Bombay Film Lab, a leading movie production studio, explained the Jewish prominence to an online Bollywood film magazine: “Before India’s independence, in the ’30s and in the ’40s, it was harder to cast Hindu and Muslim girls in films. Their homes tended to be very traditional, and this was not seen as a respectable occupation for a woman. The Jewish girls grew up in more liberal, Westernized households; they were educated, intelligent, and with fairer skin and sharper features. The producers and directors really liked the Jewish girls.”
One of the many to benefit from these preferences was Firoza Begum, born Susan Solomon, who was hugely popular in the 1920s and ’30s. Another was Ruby Meyers, known as Sulochana, a half-Ashkenazi, half-Indian Jew born in 1907. A silent movie star in the ’30s, one of her most notable films was Wild Cat of Bombay (1936), in which she played eight different roles. In 1975, she acted alongside Nadira in Julie, for which Nadira picked up the Filmfare best supporting actress award, Bollywood’s equivalent of the Oscar. The long list of Jewish stars also included Pramila, the first Miss India; Romala (Rachel Hayam Cohen); and Aaron Joshua, a prizefighter-turned-actor.
The Jewish presence could be felt elsewhere in the business as well: Parlaying her acting success into creative power, Ruby Meyers founded her own movie studio in the mid-’30s, Rubi Pics. And the screenplay for the first Indian full-length talkie, Aam Ara (“Light of the World”) in 1931, a story of two rival queens, a prince and a peasant boy, was written by Joseph David. “After watching the premiere,” wrote his granddaughter Joanna Ezikiel, “he would have gone home to a kosher meal.” And of course there was the Calcutta-born Ezra Mir, known as Edwin Myers, the first chief of the government’s India Film Division, who produced and directed more than 300 documentaries and short films.
Nadira was the last in this line, and the most exalted. She was among the busiest actors of her time, with all the trappings of a movie star–the cars (she was one of the first in Bollywood to own a Rolls Royce), the jewels and the glamour. “Even as she got older and played mostly character roles,” one film critic wrote in an obituary, “she played them with a difference. She added a rare dignity and spirit to the roles of mother, aunt or any older woman.”
Her career spanned almost 50 years, with roles in more than 60 movies and television series, including a part, her last on TV, in a 2002 episode of the horror series Shh… Koi Hai (“Someone Is There…”). In 1999 she had a role in Ismail Merchant’s Cotton Mary, which explored British and Anglo-Indian cultural identities; and in 2000 she made her final film appearance, in Josh, an Indian version of West Side Story.
In 1997’s Tamanna, she played an aging movie star pining for her lost glory–a taste, perhaps, of Nadira’s own reality later in life, which saw the once-formidable woman mostly alone, and by some accounts, lonely. She had two former husbands: Her first marriage, to Makel Naqshab, a poet of the Urdu language of the Muslims of northern India and Pakistan, ended unhappily; her second, to a man described in Bollywood gossip columns as only “out to get her money,” ended after one week. Nadira’s two brothers had emigrated long ago, one to the United States and one to Israel, and, as a Jewish neighbor told The Jerusalem Report, “they never came up.”
Some of her Bollywood friends would drop by to visit Nadira; some came to use her excellent and well-maintained library, filled with books about Shakespeare, Swami Vivekananda, Judaism and Jewish philosophy, and world history. It was said she loved music and discussing current events. And the aging star was a favorite of the neighborhood kids–on her birthday, December 5, shortly before she was hospitalized, they went round to her house where they were treated to cake and biryani (spicy yellow rice pilaf).
“She was lonely, but it was her own making,” says Solomon Sopher, head of the Iraqi Jewish community in India and chairman of the Sassoon Trust, which oversees the synagogues, libraries and the Sassoon Jewish day school in Mumbai. In the last few years, Sopher arranged to have special Iraqi Jewish food sent to Nadira every Shabbat, and this, he recalls, delighted her. “She was proud to be Jewish, she always observed the High Holy Days, came to synagogue and cared about Shabbat,” he says. “She knew more about Judaism than most of our so-called leaders.” Nadira left her Judaica and carpet collections to the Sassoon Synagogue.
But the Jewish community’s long and endearing relationship with Nadira took a strange turn at the end of her life. She intended to be cremated, as is the custom of the Hindu majority in India, and when she revealed this to Sopher, he was adamant that she choose a Jewish burial instead. “I told her that she would have no place with us in olam haba [the world to come],” he says. “I begged her. She said that cremation seemed more tidy, more neat, but I did not stop until I seemed to have changed her mind.” But soon after their last conversation, Nadira entered the hospital and lost consciousness. When she passed away, from complications arising from meningitis and a liver disorder, the cremation order was still in her will. “She even specified in the will not to be cremated on Shabbat,” Sopher maintains, “and that her ashes were to be spread in the sands of Jerusalem.” And although he could never agree with cremation, Sopher changed course. “The rabbis say this is not allowed, they are not in agreement with me, but I am trying to find a way to honor her wishes, somehow.”
Her friends from the movie world, many of whom arrived for the cremation ceremony, spoke of her admiringly, lovingly, eulogizing her independent mind and her tendency to be ahead of her times. They did not seem aware that the cremation they had just witnessed had left the Jewish community shocked, even heartbroken. “I could not even do the ashkava ritual for her, since she was not buried,” laments Sopher, who considered Nadira a beloved friend. “I said a few psalms, there was nothing else I could do. It is hard to describe how we felt. To describe this pain. The saddest thing about Nadira’s life was her death.”