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OzAsia film review: Shalom Bollywood

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Subtitled ‘The Untold Story of Indian Cinema’, Shalom Bollywood is a heartfelt documentary about the impact of Jewish actors and filmmakers in India’s Hindi-based Bollywood cinema.

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Drawing on original film footage, interviews, quirky animations and silent-movie intertitles, it documents how the story began some 2000 years ago when Jewish people fled the Roman empire to settle on the Indian coast and gradually drifted east to Bombay.

In early Indian films, Hindu and Muslim women were prohibited from acting, so female roles were taken by men. As the art of film veered towards realism, this method was increasingly ineffective in engaging audiences.

As part of a minority of Anglo-Indians, Jewish communities were more accepting of the film industry. The preference for female actors with high cheekbones matched the visual image of beauty found in the screen goddesses of Hollywood.

The first Jewish superstar was Sulochana, a stage name meaning “beautiful eyes”. In a twist, she played female and male roles. She was soon followed by others, including one who became the first “Miss India”.

Jewish men also began to impact in Bollywood, with screenwriters and producers making their mark. A short, bald but hugely charismatic actor who became known as “Uncle David” proved extremely popular on screen.

Directed by Australian writer, academic and film and TV documentary-maker Danny Ben-Moshe, the film sidesteps the controversial issue of caste to focus on the use of female Jewish actors being cast (and relishing the role) of the vamp, mirroring Hollywood’s appetite for sassy women in key roles.

Working with a limited base of interviews with surviving stars and their offspring, Shalom Bollywood paints an intimate portrait of this almost invisible part of the most prolific cinema industry in the world.

Shalom Bollywood: The Untold Story of Indian cinema will screen at the Mercury Cinema on October 30, November 1 and November 8 as part of the film program during this year’s OzAsia Festival, which opens this Thursday. See the full line-up of films here.

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