Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Pramila: Esther Victoria Abraham- The First woman to be crowned Miss India

“My husband asked me to choose between him and the theatre. And I chose the latter. After that he never came to the theatre. Never saw me either. That was it. I was pregnant then. There was no other meeting, no other conversation … that was the end of my family life …”

Esther was born in 1916 in Kolkata to Reuben Abraham, a businessman from Kolkata and Matilda Issac from Karachi. Her family was of the Baghdadi Jewish origins, that traces its routes to the Middle east and who settled primarily around the trade route ports around Indian ocean and the South Chinese sea.
She had three half siblings and six siblings from her parent’s own marriage.

Education and early life
Esther attended the Calcutta Girls high school but later shifted to St James which was a co-educational institution and had a reasonable fee structure which the family could afford due to its declining means. Esther learned that to be an all-rounder she had to to excel in both studies and sports and become better than the boys.
She was a hockey champion and had won many trophies in sports.
She had a penchant for drawing and on graduating from high school received an arts degree from Cambridge.
On completing her high school degree she went to become a kindergarten teacher at the Talmud Torah Boy’s school. Esther was pretty and the boys in her school would try and find all kinds of excuses to speak to their beautiful teacher. Despite having done a B Ed degree she didn’t want to teach and was drawn to the Hindi cinema.

From Esther to Pramila
Her family had keen interest in music and dance which attracted young Esther to cinema. Her entry into silent movies happened by a sheer stroke of luck.
In those days her first cousin Rose and her younger sister Sophie were a part of the Corinthian theatre.
Meanwhile she got married to a Marwari theatre personality and had a son Maurice Abraham. Her parents convinced her to annul the marriage and they brought up Maurice.
A chance visit to Bombay to visit her cousin Rose Ezra changed the course of her life. Director R S Chowdhari spotted her while she visited Rose who was acting in The Return of the Toofan Mail. The director thought that the tall and glamorous Esther would do greater justice to the role and she was signed after being put through a screen test.
The movie The Return of the Toofan Mail was never completed but this marked the beginning of Esther’s entry into Hindi cinema.
She stayed on in Bombay and started working with Irani’s Imperial company. In 1936, her first movie Bhikaran hit the theaters and her anglicized hindi was accepted and became a rage. After this movie she was given the screen name Pramila by director and producer Baburao Pendherkar.
She went on to act in movies like Ulti Ganga,Burra Nawab Sahib, Bijli,Shahzadi, Jhankar, Our Darling Daughter, Maha Maya among others that often saw her play a vamp and stunt star. She also became the first major woman film producer with 16 major films under her banner Silver Productions. Morarji Desai, the then Prime minister got her arrested for she was suspected to be a spy for as she often travelled to Pakistan. Later it was proved that her constant travels were aimed at promoting her films.

  • Return of the Toofan Mail, directed by R.S. Chaudhary (1935)
  • Bhikaran, directed by P.K. Atharti (1935)
  • Mahamaya, directed by Gunjal (1936)
  • Hamari Betiya / Our Darling Daughters, directed by R.S. Chaudhary (1936)
  • Saria, directed by Shanti Dave (1936)
  • Mere Lai, directed by Gunjal (1937)
  • Mother India, directed by Gunjal (1938)
  • Bijlee, directed by Balwant Bhatt (1939)
  • Hukum Ka Ekka, directed by Shanti Dave (1939)
  • Jungle King, directed by Nari Ghadialli (1939)
  • Kahan Hai Manzil Ten, directed by S.M. Yussuf (1939)
  • Sardar, directed by Dwarka Khosla (1940)
  • Kanchan, directed by Leela Chitnis (1941)
  • Shahzaadi, directed by J.P. Advani (1941)
  • Basant, directed by Amiya Chakrabarty (1942)
  • Jhankar, directed by S. Khalil (1942)
  • Saheli, directed by S.M. Yussuf (1942)
  • Ulti Ganga, directed by K. Dhaiber (1942)
  • Bade Nawab Saheb, directed by B.D. Vedi (1944)
  • Naseeb, directed by B.D. Vedi (1945)
  • Devar, directed by S.M. Yussuf (1946)
  • Nehle Pe Dehla, directed by S.M. Yussuf (1946)
  • Sal Gira, directed by K.S. Dariani (1946)
  • Shalimar, directed by Roop K. Shorey (1946)
  • Doosri Shaadi, directed by Ram Dariani (1947)
  • Aap Beeti, directed by M. Kumar (1948)
  • Beqasoor, directed by K. Amamath (1950)
  • Hamari Beti, directed by Shobhna Samarth (1950)
  • Dhoon, directed by M. Kumar (1953)
  • Majboori / Choti Bahen, directed by Ram Dariani (1954)
  • Badal Aur Bijlee, directed by Maurice Abraham (1956)
  • Fighting Queen, directed by Nari Ghadiali (1956)
  • Jungle King, directed by Masud (1959)
  • Bahana, directed by M. Kumar (1960)
  • Murad, directed by Nari Ghadiali (1961)
  • Thaang, directed by Amol Palekar (2006)

As a fashion icon
She wore sarees with a western twist which were usually different from the traditional designs of those times. She designed, drew and stitched her own costumes. She was a popular face of the fashion magazines of the 30’s and 40’s.

Marriage and family
Her first marriage to a marwari theatre actor Manicklal Dungi in her teens ended in divorce from which she had a son, Maurice Abraham. In 1939, she married Syed Hassan Ali better known by his screen name Kumar (who played the role of the sculptor in Anarkali). Zaidi was a Shia Muslim and she adopted the name Shabnam Begum Ali in the nikahnama. However, Esther remained a practicing Jew till the end. Zaidi was already married and his wife and children lived in Lucknow, but he lived with Esther for twenty two years in Bombay. They had a lavish lifestyle and were often seen at the races and loved fast cars. In those days she modeled for A J Patel and got a couple of Hollywood offers, but due to the outbreak of the Second World war they never materialized.
She had four children with Zaidi, Akbar, Asghar, Naqi and Haider. The children were taught to follow both the Muslim and Jewish faiths. They attended the Passover festival at their grandparents house in Calcutta and cooked Iraqi Jewish food at home regularly. Esther was proud of her Jewish identity and got the ration cards of her children registered in her name. Thus in a country like ours where children always take their father's name, this courageous woman broke the rules and made sure that her identity as a mother didn't get lost in the oblivion.Her parents helped her buy a house in Shivaji Park and the house was called Pramila Vilas after her name.

Becoming the first woman to win the Miss India title
In those days, Miss India pageant was a popular face contest. She was 31 and pregnant with her fifth child during her Miss India moment.

"The title was okay—it didn't really mean much to me then. It only became important 20 years later" said Pramilla in an interview with Indian Express.

"At that time, it (the Miss India pageant) was more of a popular-face contest, and since I was on the cover of most magazines in those days, I was chosen. In those days, the rules and regulations had still not been formally laid down" she added.

Pramila was given the Miss India trophy at the Liberty cinema by none other than Morarji Desai.

Starting of a Film Production company
Along with her husband Hassan Ali she started her own film production company, Silver films in 1942. She defied the studio systems where power rested in the hands of the wealthy producers and actors were paid employees of studios. She took the risk of establishing her own production company and raising money to fund her films. She produced several successful and popular films and acted in some of them. Her last film as an actress was Murad released in 1964.

Life after retirement from cinema
Her husband decided to move to Pakistan along with his extended family from Lucknow which left her bereaved and surprised. But she decided to stay back in India since she didn’t want to live in a theocratic country. She lived in India after her husband went away along with her five children and continued to produce films.
She was embroiled in battles with the government to get back the properties that they had requisitioned. She forgot her stardom and travelled in public buses to hear the court hearings.
She tried to launch her children in Bollywood with her daughter Naqi Jahan becoming a well-known model and Miss India in 1967. Esther and Naqi are the only mother-daughter duo to bag the Miss India title. Naqi became a successful still model until she opted for a married life with a Gujarati businessman and changed her name to Nandini Kamdar. Akbar and Asghar continued to practice Islam and Maurice remained a Jew. Akbar and Asghar had short stints with films while Maurice produced a couple of movies. Her son Haider of the Nukkad fame did character acting in Hindi cinema. He wrote the script of Jodhaa Akbar and did a cameo in the song "Khwaja mere khwaja".

Last film and passing away
Her unquenchable spirit for acting was displayed in the Marathi movie Thangg directed by Amol Palekar where she played a grandmother years after bidding adieu to cinema. She died five months short of her ninetieth birthday on August 6th, 2006. At her funeral, Maurice recited the scriptures in Hebrew at the Maghen David synagogue while Akbar said the scriptures in Arabic. She was laid to rest in the Jewish cemetery in Chinchpokli.

A talented actor and a born rebel
Years before Madhuri Dixit was born, lyrics of a song written for her movie said “ choli ke andar do anar”. Morarji Desai wanted to get it censored. But her quick witty thoughtfulness made her convince him and she said that there was a misprint in the script and it was “jholi ke andar do anar”
On another occasion a scene in which her saree’s pallu was shown to be falling was asked to be cut by the censor board. She saved it from going under the scissor by telling Mr.Desai that she would drape it back in the next scene.
She was always at loggerheads with Mr.Desai who got her arrested on the charges of spying for Pakistan, the charges were proved to be a misunderstanding later. The greatest irony of her life was that she suffered from poor eyesight despite having those ravishing smouldering eyes.
“I couldn’t see without glasses. I did rehearsals by counting the steps. I was squint-eyed but beautiful...”
Such was her love for acting. That she never gave up or failed despite having a physical handicap.


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