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05 Film Personalities and Others in the Public Gaze

Pramila: Esther Victoria Abraham – A Star Studded Bollywood and Glamour Family in India

Family Background:

Esther Victoria Abraham was born in Calcutta on December 30th, 1916. Her father, Reuben Abraham,1 was a businessman. The family owned O’ Brian and Company (adapted and Anglicized from Abraham), that laid railway lines and received Government contracts to make signal stations. They were involved in other business enterprises too – they ran a printing press, traded in cotton futures, and owned The Temperance hotel that was on the terrace of the New Market. Reuben married Liya, a Christian woman, who bore him three girls – Flory, Ramah, and Tutu. The couple longed for a son.

Story has it that Jaddan bai (pir bai bahen to Reuben) lived in the family compound (Jaddan was the mother of Nargis who became a very famous Hindi film star). Jaddan took Reuben to see a man who she thought could grant him this wish. The man who could look into the future forewarned Reuben that if he would have a son he would lose his wife and all his wealth in that quest. True to the dire forecast, Liya lost her life in giving birth to Jimmy.

Reuben felt he needed a mother for his children and put the word out in the Jewish community that he wished to remarry. His marriage was arranged with Matilda. Matilda, who was then 14 years, lived in Karachi. Her father, Dr. Albert Isaac was a respected eye surgeon and built the first Eye Cure Hospital on Bunder Road in 1900.2 Matilda came to live with Reuben in his large joint family home at 9 Bentinck Street, Bowbazaar. It was a three-storied building with godowns and outhouses. Matilda had many children, her eldest was Esther. After Esther came Raymond, Sophie and Joseph (Jo Jo), Johnny, Marina3 and Mozelle. Mozelle died when she was only eight years old.

Esther was very fond of her paternal grandmother, who she was named after. Esther Shamma (her grandmother) was a very beautiful woman, who would cook for over 30 members of the family. Esther Shamma had been married to a wealthy Hindu gentleman who had died when he was very young. As a widow she reverted to her maiden name and became the matriarch of the family.

Over the years, the Abraham family fortunes declined, and Reuben’s losses in gambling and racing aggravated the situation. The family weathered many financial challenges and confronted a major loss when the Temperance Hotel caught fire. Reuben went into debt, as O’Brian and Company had also lost many business contracts. These financial reverses lead Reuben to shift his business interests to wholesale marketing. However, this business did not do well either.

Growing up years:

Esther, attended Calcutta Girls’ High School, but shifted to St James which was a co-educational school at that time, and more reasonable in its fee structure, which was important as the family means declined. The Abrahams moved to Rippon Street, and the school was closer to their new place. Esther quickly learned that to excel she had to be better than the boys. She proved not only a good student, but also to be a very talented sportswoman. She was a hockey champion and won many trophies in sports. Esther was very good at drawing, and on graduating from High School qualified and received an Arts Degree, administered from Cambridge.

On completing her high school degree, she went to work as a kindergarten teacher in the Talmud Torah Boy’s School. Esther was so pretty that the boys in the school would find all kinds of excuses to go and speak to their very attractive and glamorous teacher. The stunning looking teacher at the Talmud Torah was ambitious, and despite having completed her B.Ed. degree, did not stay long in the teaching profession.

From Esther to Pramila:

Esther was very drawn to the Hindi cinema that was emerging in those years. She also had an interest in the theater. These interests were not surprising as the entire family was quite exposed to Indian dance and music. Jaddan Bai, was a singer and dancer. Mr. J J Madan owned the Corinthian Theater where Rose, Esther’s first cousin, and her younger sister Sophie, were actors. Esther married a Marwari theater personality and had a son, Maurice Abraham. Her parents annulled this marriage and they brought up Maurice.

Esther admired her cousin Rose Ezra and her sister Sophie (Romila) who had left Calcutta to join the Bombay film industry. 4 A visit to them in Bombay changed the trajectory of her life. Director R. S, Chowdhari spotted Esther while she visited the studio where Rose was acting in The Return of the Toofan Mail. Chowdhari thought tall and statuesque Esther was more suitable to play the part. Esther was given a screen test there and then and was signed up immediately. And so her career in the Bombay film industry ensued. The Return of the Toofan Mail, however, was never completed.

Esther stayed on in Bombay and was signed up to work at Irani’s Imperial Company. In those days actors were bound to the studio. Esther was loaned to Movietone to play a Westernized vamp in Bhikaran. When Bhikaran was released in 1935, Esther’s Anglicized Hindi became quite a rage. It was Baburao Pendharkar who gave her the screen name Pramila. Pramila acted in many movies including Ulti Ganga, the first version of Mother India, BijliBurra Nawab Sahib, Jungle King, Shahzadi, Jhankar, Our Darling Daughter, Maha Maya, Basant, Bekasoor, and other popular Hindi films, often playing the role of the Vamp.

Esther was a good seamstress and she often designed, drew and sewed her own costumes which were saris with a Western twist, much like contemporary styles. A fashion icon, her face and form dominated magazines of the 30’s and 40’s.

When she wore the latest designs in a sari or blouse, the styles would become a rage immediately….With her Western sensibilities and features, Pramila represented the Western woman of that time. She acted in nearly 30 films and played roles that were antithesis of the lead roles played by sari-clad heroines. She was the vamp who played the piano.”5

Marriage and Family:

In 1939 Esther married Bollywood film star, Syed Hasan Ali Zaidi whose screen name was Kumar (Kumar is best known for his role as the sculptor of Anarkali in Mughal-E-Azam). Zaidi was a practicing Shia Muslim. While they were married and her name was made out as Shabnam Begum Ali in the Nikhanama, Esther remained a practicing Jewess to the end. Zaidi/Kumar had a wife and children in Lucknow, but Esther and he lived together for twenty-two years in Bombay. They lived a lavish life-style – they danced all night long at the Taj, they were regulars at the races and loved fast cars. In these heady days, Pramila was one of the favorite models of A.J.Patel and even got a couple of film offers from Hollywood. The outbreak of the War came in the way of those offers materializing.

The glamorous couple had four children: Akbar, Asghar, Naqi and Haider. Esther was voted as the first Miss India in 1947 when she was pregnant with her fifth child. She received the Miss India trophy at Liberty Cinema from Moraji Desai.6 Naqi was the only girl on both sides of the family. She was sent to boarding school at La Martiniere, Lucknow. Later she was placed in an Urdu medium School for a few years, and then attended Mount Mary School in Bombay.

Haidar speaks fondly of his siblings Khurshed and Pyare from his father’s first wife. He wonderfully captures the inclusive atmosphere of his family, which was close to both cousins on both sides, as “a family of yours, ours and mine”. Though the children were taught to follow the Muslim faith, Esther was staunchly Jewish and the children followed Jewish customs too and attended religious functions like Passover Seder at their grandparents’ home first in Calcutta, and then in Bombay, where their grandparents moved to be close to Pramila.

Esther was very proud of her Jewish identity and registered the ration cards for her children in her name. For example, Naqi’s ration card states her name as Naqi Ali Abraham, as do the cards of her other children. Haider says: “we went to synagogues and to mosques. Both religions got equal play in our home.” Esther celebrated the festivals and attended the synagogue. Iraqi Jewish food was regularly cooked in her home. Pramila’s parents helped her buy a home near Shivaji Park, and the home was called Pramila Vilas, still in the family’s possession.

Esther and Hassan Ali started their own film production Company called Silver Films 7 in 1942. Esther felt stifled by the powerful studio system where actors worked as paid employees of studios. Raising money for films and producing their own films was a risky and tough business, but the Company produced several films, and she acted in some of them.

When Zaidi sought to join his elder brother who moved to Pakistan along with his extended family from Lucknow, Esther was astounded. She was not ready to uproot her family and start life all over again. She refused to live in a theocratic country and so, despite the challenges, stayed on in India with her five children and continued to produce films. The last film she acted in was Murad in 1964.

Launching her Children:

Difficult times were ahead for Esther and her family as the film world was a man’s world and hard for her to manage without Kumar at her side. For two decades she battled in the courts to get back properties from the Government. However, Esther was a strong woman and took both success and difficulties in her stride. Very much part of the film world she tried to launch her children in Bollywood. Her daughter Naqi Jahan became a very well known model and Miss India in 19678. Naqi received the title at the Catholic Gymkhana, and Esther and Naqi are the only mother and daughter duo to have claimed this title.

Naqi was a very successful still model, and had many shoots to her credit. Naqi gave up her glamorous world when she opted for a married life with Mr. Kamdar, a Gujarati businessman and owner of the Kamdar furniture store in Churchgate. Naqi converted to Hinduism and is now Nandini Kamdar. Akbar became a staunch Wahabi Muslim and married a Sunni, Asghar remained Muslim but married a Hindu. Maurice remained Jewish, and married a Hindu. Asghar, and Akbar both did some modeling but eventually opted to start businesses of their own, as did Maurice.

Haidar, the youngest son lived with his mother all his life. He was devoted and determined to make it in film and had started acting at a very young age. He was the only family member who had the requisite determination and grit to stay in the film industry through all its ups and downs. As a young man he became a stand-up comedian and played at the legendary Firpos in Calcutta to quite a lot of acclaim. He states:

I wanted to start my life where my parents did. My father got a start in New Theater, Calcutta.”

Haidar was also a dancer, and was famous for dancing the Limbo. Today Haider is best known for writing the screenplay for Jodhaa Akbar, starring superstars Hritik Roshan and Aishwarya Rai. Haidar appears in the song Khwaja Mere Khwaja in Jodhaa-Akbar where he plays a Sufi saint. He has also acted in many tele-films.

Haider, who is married to a Tamilian Brahmin, says that he was inspired to write Jodhaa Akbar. He found strong parallels between his life and the Mughul King Akbar who was known for religious toleration and for his devotion to his Hindu wife Jodhaa. Haidar sees the movie as his story: he learned so much from his Hindu wife who he has loved ever since he was a child.9 The movie became a major Bollywood hit. Its success is of great comfort to Haider who spent five years writing the screenplay for the movie.

Esther’s Legacy:

Esther, a very proud woman, always held her head up high no matter what the circumstances. Haider describes his mother as a

woman who was gifted by God with internal power and strength…she magnetized power….. On the home front she kept us together,” he said, clenching his fist, “like this.”

That power and strength Esther personified, that Haidar vividly captures in the expression above, enabled her to weather the storms in her life. Through the financial and emotional upheavals, she took care of her children and her parents and her siblings. Syed Hassan Ali became an important star on the Pakistani screen, but his ties to his family in India were tenuous. He only paid a visit when the children were much older. Esther for the most part brought up her children on her own and kept the family together all through her life.

Esther died five months short of her ninetieth birthday - soon after she played the role of a grandmother in Amol Palekar’s Thang (Quest). At her funeral Maurice recited the scriptures in Hebrew at the Maghen David Synagogue, and Akbar recited the scriptures in Arabic. Esther was carried by her sons, Jewish and Muslim, and buried in the Jewish cemetery in Chinckpokli.

The story of this family is not only one of the silver screen, romance and stardom. It is also a story of great religious and cultural mixing. Esther’s grandmother, Esther Shumma married a Hindu. Her father Reuebn married a Christian and was pir bai of Jaddan Bai. Esther married a Hindu and a Muslim. While Esther remained a Jewess to the end, her children have embraced many different faiths – Maurice is Jewish, Akbar, Asghar and Haidar are Muslim, and Naqi has embraced Hinduism. Esther’s daughters-in-law are mostly Hindu, Haidar’s wife is Aiyar, and the entire family is deeply aware of their Jewish heritage and are very familiar with the Jewish prayers, traditions and culture.

See The rise and fall of Jews in Bollywood: http://weeklypresspakistan.com/2013/04/7196

Also the film Shalome Bollywood to be released.

Notes: 

1 Reuben was the son of Esther Shama Abraham who came from Baghdad. She married a Brahmin Zamindar but retained her religion. She had three children all of whom were boys. One son was Albert and the other son’s name is unknown by Esther’s family.
2 Pramila, An Autobiographical Note Based on the Visual History Workshop – August 31, 1997 organized by Sparrow, p 5, Publication No. 2, March 1998, Inland Printers, Mumbai.
3 Marina’s son is Abe Levy and is a religious Jew living in NYC.
4 Romila was also part of the Corinthian Theater playing comedy and dancing roles. One of the first films she acted in was called Calcutta by Midnight. Later she was attached to Mohan Sound Studio and acted in many stunt films such as Chabukwali, Lady Robin Hood and Cyclewalli. She joined the Women Auxiliary Force during World War 2, and soon after the war she died of cancer.
5 Dr. S C Laxmi, Director of Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women (SPARROW), in “Vamp No. One, The Sunday Read, Mumbai Mirror, Sunday Aug 13, 2006, p. 10.
6 “Miss India’s: Mother and Child”, The Sunday Express, Living 5, 14 May, 2006
7 Bombay Talkies launch of Silver Films by Pramila and Kumar. Left Esther, Sophie aside owner Devika rani who launched the Company, Chandra Mohan, Azuri, and Kumar.Behind is Rubin Abraham, and there are celebrities like Mehboob Khan, and A. R. Kardar in the second row.At the back is K.Asaf standing behind comedian Gop. 
8 Persis Khambata in her book The Pride of India, that is all about India’s beauty Queens features both Premila and Naqi, the only family anywhere in the world where mother and daughter are both Beauty Queens
9 His wife is a Kidney specialist and the former Dean of Wadia Hospital.