This Day in Jewish History

1982: Bollywood Darling 'Uncle David' Dies

David Cheulkar, member of the Bene Israel 'lost tribe', persevered and ultimately starred in dozens of films.

A still from the film "Boot Polish," featuring Kumari Naaz and David Abraham (who is shown in the picture, smiling and wearing a hat).
Screen capture from "Boot Polish," YouTube

On January 2, 1982, the beloved Indian character actor David Cheulkar died, at the presumed age of 72. Often billed as simply “David” or “Uncle David,” Cheulkar appeared in more than 110 Bollywood films in a career that exceeded four decades, many of them indeed as a kindly, avuncular character.

David Abraham Cheulkar was born in 1909 in Thane, a city in Maharastra state, not from Mumbai, then called Bombay. He was the youngest child of Abraham and Dinah Chewoolkar, members of India’s Jewish Bene Israel community – a Marathi-speaking group of Jews who have been living in India for hundreds of years, though most moved to Israel following independence. (The origins of the Bene Israel are unclear, but their tradition says they descended from one of the 10 Lost Tribes of Israel: Genetic analysis indicates their ties to Middle Eastern ancestry are from post-biblical times, most likely within the last thousand years.)

David grew up in Mumbai, where his father worked as a railways engineer. He attended St. Joseph’s School, then Wilson College at the University of Bombay, from which he graduated with a B.A. in 1930. During the following six years, he sought work while at the same time studying at the Government Law College in the city.

No luck as a lawyer either

Cheulkar had loved acting since childhood, and always had a proficiency for learning languages. After six years of fruitless hunting for work in acting, he accepted a friend’s offer to introduce him to Mohan Bhavnani, who had previously been head of production at the Indian government’s film division, and who was now an independent director-producer. According to an autobiographical essay written by Cheulkar in 1956, Bhavnani gave him a role as “an elderly professor” in the 1937 movie “Zambo.”

During his initial years in the film industry, wrote Cheulkar, his employment was uncertain, and there was a period during which he considered himself lucky to be working, not in front of the camera, but behind it, performing the tasks of, “assistant director, production manager, clapper boy, continuity clerk, telephone operator and actor, all rolled in one.”  

When he had no work in movies, he turned back to his legal training, but there too, he had no success. The initials “LL.B,” wrote Cheulkar, “looked good on a visiting card. But they didn’t get me anywhere in the legal profession.”

Although, perhaps out of modesty, Cheulkar describes his film career as very unstable, a look at his screen credits shows that he appeared in many scores of films during the 1950s, ‘60s and ‘70s, up to the end of his life.

Boot Polish, full length YouTube

Kindly bootlegger

Among his more notable performances were his roles in “Boot Polish” (1954), in which he played John Chacha, a kindly bootlegger who, before he is sent off to jail, takes two orphan siblings under his wing and teaches them to work for a living shining shoes, rather than to get by begging. Cheulkar received the Filmfare magazine best supporting actor prize for that role.

He was also featured in “Pardesi” (“Journey Beyond Three Seas”), a 1957 Russian-Indian coproduction taking place in the 1400s; “The City and the Dream” (“Shehar Aur Sapna,” in Hindi), a naturalistic urban drama from 1963, that was nominated for India’s National Film Award as best feature, and the romantic comedy “Chupke Chupke” from 1975 (from minute 1 to minute 2 of clip).

In the 1969 film “Satyakam,” Cheulkar was given the opportunity to play against type, taking the role of Rustom, a debauched drunkard who serves as a foil to the hero of the film, a family drama that takes place during the final days of British rule in India, in 1947.

According to Bentsion Abraham Chewoolkar, who wrote an essay about his relation Uncle David, on the centenary of the latter’s birth, Cheulkar, though not religiously devout, prayed briefly each day, and always observed Yom Kippur by fasting and by visiting synagogue for the Neilah service.

Cheulkar never married, and after suffering a serious heart attack in 1972, he followed a niece and nephew when they moved to Hamilton, Ontario, not far from Toronto, in 1979. Although formally retired, he did some acting locally. On December 27, 1981, Cheulkar suffered a stroke. He died six days later, on January 2, 1982.