Esther Abraham was a Jewish Bollywood superstar and the first female film producer in India. She was a proud observant Jew even while shaping modern Indian culture.
Esther was born in Calcutta in 1916 to an Orthodox Jewish family. The Abrahams were Baghdadi Jews who had emigrated from Iraq in the 19th century. In school Esther excelled academically and athletically. She was a talented hockey player with a roomful of trophies. Esther was also an artist who attended Cambridge University after high school and majored in art.
After university, Esther became a kindergarten teacher at a Jewish school in Calcutta, but she yearned to be a performer. Her first job in the entertainment industry was as a dancer for a silent movie theater. Esther’s job was to entertain the audience during pauses in the film while the reels were changed.
Many members of Esther’s family were talented musicians and performers. She went to visit an actress cousin in Bombay who was appearing in a theater production. The director noticed tall, beautiful Esther and gave her a screen test.
Esther did so well on the test that she soon appeared in her first movie, Bhikaran, in 1936. Around this time she was given the screen name Pramila. Audiences fell in love with Pramila and she quickly became one of the most famous actresses in India. She also worked as a model and appeared on many magazine covers. In 1947, at age 31, Esther won the first Miss India contest – while pregnant with her fifth child.
At that time in India, the movie industry was controlled by a handful of extremely wealthy producers who exploited their actors and crew members and paid them only a measly salary. Esther Abraham decided to change that. She defied the studio system by becoming the first female producer of Bollywood feature films. Esther formed her own production company, Silver Productions, and produced sixteen feature films. She treated her cast and crew with respect and paid them well.
Esther starred in 30 films. In addition to being an actress and producer, she did her own stunts and worked as a stunt double for other performers. Esther also designed her own costumes and jewelry for every production.
Famous for her enchantingly beautiful eyes, audiences didn’t know that her eyesight was very poor and she did dance moves by counting the steps. Audiences also were likely unaware that she was Jewish – and probably wouldn’t have cared. Unlike so many countries with Jewish communities, India has no history of antisemitism.
Esther’s daughter Naqi Jahan was crowned Miss India in 1967, and they are the only mother and daughter who both won the title. Her son Haidar Ali is a successful Indian actor and screenwriter. Haidar described his mother: “A woman who was gifted by God with internal power and strength… she magnetized power…. One the home front she kept us together [clenching his fist] like this.”
Esther Abraham appeared in her last film in 2005, at age 90, playing a grandmother in the movie Thaang. She died a few months after its release. Until the end of her long life, Esther remained a practicing Jew. Her funeral was at the Maghen David synagogue, and her son Maurice read Psalms in Hebrew. Esther was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Mumbai.
For entertaining audiences for seventy years, and for blazing trails as the first female film producer in India, we honor Esther Abraham, aka Pramila, as this week’s Thursday Hero.
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