Wednesday, October 17, 2007

the first jew of bollywood

Below is an article that I wrote for Jewish Renaissance Magazine about my great-grandfather.

The First Jew of Bollywood

I will never know exactly how my great-grandfather spent his evening on 14th March, 1931. He almost certainly attended the Majestic Theatre, Bombay, for the premiere of ‘Alam Ara’(Light of the World): the first full-length Bollywood talkie, to which he’d written the screenplay, and some of the music. ‘Alam Ara’ had been adapted from his popular play about two rival queens, a prince, and a peasant girl. I expect that he, along with the rest of the audience, was amazed by the sounds of speech, and singing to music, never before experienced in an Indian film. Perhaps he heard, among the excited crowd outside, the shouts of touts selling black market tickets for the most successful film yet in Bollywood history. And maybe, after the film had ended, he went home for some dinner. A kosher dinner. My great-grandfather, Joseph David, was an Indian Jew.

But his achievement as an artist from a religious minority wasn’t because of any second-generation creative fusion. ‘Alam Ara’, with its romantic, fantasy plot, was no ‘East is East’. In fact, the Bene-Israeli Jews of Bombay had been somewhat assimilated for centuries; born Joseph David Penkar in the Dongri-Umarkhadi area of Bombay in 1872, Penkar was not only my great-grandfather’s surname (which he later dropped), but the name of his ancestral village. Established in Bombay for around 2000 years, the Bene-Israelis were always a religious minority, but experienced little anti-Semitism. Working as oil-pressers, passing down Hebrew prayers and stories by word-of-mouth, it wasn’t until the eighteenth century that the Bene-Israelis established their own synagogues and rabbis.

My great-grandfather, with minimal schooling, joined the Parsi Imperial Theatrical Company as a stagehand. Given small improvisational parts as an actor, it wasn’t long before his talent with words and music was spotted. Soon, he was working as a playwright, a profession that many in his community equated with running away with the circus. Under British rule, young Bene-Israelis were forming an emerging middle class, entering the army, the medical profession, and education. However, theatre, especially Parsi theatre, was very popular in Bombay, and the new film industry was expanding - the perfect opportunities for a talented outsider.

Fluent in many Indian languages, Hebrew, and English, Joseph David developed a passion for English plays. The influences of Jewish, Hindi and English stories are detectable in Alam Ara (Light of the World), itself based on a legend. In one scene, the wicked queen imprisons a young man who fails to respond to her advances - like the biblical story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. And the sub-plot of two lovers kept apart is reminiscent of Rama and Sita in the Ramayana, with perhaps a touch of Romeo and Juliet. Today, three of his plays - Queen Esther, The Maccabean Warriors, and Prince Absalom - are archived in the Tel Aviv National Library. These biblical plays, performed almost a century ago in Bombay, were inspired by Hindu legends put on by touring theatre companies.

After ‘Alam Ara’, Joseph David joined Ardeshir Irani’s Imperial Film Company as a playwright, and was also involved with the producing, directing, and composing. Other screenplays followed: ‘Sati Sone’ (1932), ‘Lal-e-Yaman’ (to which he also composed the score) (1933), and ‘Desh Deepak’ (1935).

My father remembers his grandfather as a gentle, eccentric man. In the late 1930’s, as a young child, my father lived opposite the Wadia Movietone studios in Bombay for a time. He would watch Joseph David enter the film buildings every weekday at 8 a.m., always wearing his trademark fur hat, whatever the weather. Joseph David would often stop by and entertain his daughter by his first marriage, Rebecca, and my father with gossip from the movie sets, and sing the songs he was composing. He often used to sing the wandering minstrel’s lament from ‘Alam Ara’.

Maybe it is time that Joseph David, who died in 1942, received the recognition that he deserves from the Indian government and the Bene-Israeli community.
Long before Bollywood became as mainstream in this country as it is today, I would tell people about my great-grandfather. And in these tense times, I find it heartening to recall that my Jewish ancestor’s script was written for and enjoyed by Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and other religions alike. Sentimental? Perhaps. But that’s Bollywood.

Published in Jewish Renaissance Magazine, Autumn 2002

With acknowledgements to these links:

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