This Day in Jewish History

1932: One of Bollywood's Leading Ladies Is Born

Nadira (Florence Ezekiel) played princesses and vamps, and was supposedly the first Bollywood star to be chauffeured around in a Rolls-Royce.

December 5, 1932, is the birthdate of Nadira, the stage name of the popular Indian film star Florence Ezekiel, who appeared in more than 70 movies between 1953 and 2000.

Florence Ezekiel was born Farhat Ezekiel in Baghdad (apparently -- although other, generally reliable sources also cite her birthplace as being in Israel and Bombay, India).

The film industry of Bombay (today Mumbai) is celebrating its first century this year. For most of its first 50 years, it wasn’t considered appropriate for Hindu women to perform in the pictures of Bollywood, as the city’s movie business is now universally known; female roles were often played by Anglo-Indian women, or by Jewish women, who were seen as part of a foreign community. Nadira must have had this in mind when, at the age of 19, she sailed to Bombay, hoping to make it onto the silver screen. At the time, Bombay had a large and vibrant community of Jews with their origins in Baghdad. (Here there is also disagreement among experts, as some sources say Nadira’s family settled in Bombay when she was a baby, and that she had her first screen role at the age of 12.)

Nadira got her first break in 1952, in the film “Aan” (Pride), in which she was cast as Princess Rajshree opposite the heartthrob Dilip Kumar. He played the handsome and courageous peasant Jai Tilak, who dared to seek the hand of the arrogant and unattainable princess. Although one British critic complained that the movie “went aan and aan and aan,” it was a hit at the box office.

Despite this initial success as a leading lady, two years later, Nadira took a role in “Shree 420” (Mr. 420, a reference to the section of the Indian penal code that deals with swindlers) as a seductress named Maya, who helps turn the country boy Raj into a big-city con man. “Mudh mudh ke na dekh,” the song she sings to win over her prey, is still remembered by many Bollywood enthusiasts.

As Nadira herself later told an interviewer, “No one ever gave me the role of a heroine after that film.” Instead, dozen of films followed in which Nadira – with arched eyebrows and flaring nostrils -- played the part of a vamp, a brothel madam or a schemer or one sort or another, invariably leading men to ruin.

Nadira said that her mother warned her that no Jewish man would marry her, if she continued to play such roles. And indeed, although she did marry twice, neither relationship lasted; one, in fact, lasted no longer than a week. But she was a star, and supposedly the first in Bollywood to have herself transported in a Rolls-Royce.

By the 1970s, Nadira was being offered roles as a character actress, most notably as an Anglo-Indian mother in the 1975 film “Julie,” for which she won a Filmfare award for best supporting actress. (The annual cinema awards, named for an Indian magazine, are the country’s most prestigious.)

One of Nadira’s brothers emigrated to Israel, the other to the United States, but she remained in South Mumbai, where she died on February 9, 2006, at the age of 73. In her last years she suffered from alcoholism and a host of severe medical problems. But a journalist who visited Nadira’s home shortly before her death learned that she had warm relationships with her neighbors, who were welcome to borrow books from her well-stocked library. It included, said one, titles by “Shakespeare, Hitler, Vivekananda,” and on World War II and Judaism.

Twitter: @davidbeegreen