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August 6: Miss India, 1947

August 5, 2015

28sld1Esther Victoria Abraham, a Calcutta-born Jew of Iraqi background who won the first Miss India beauty pageant in 1947, died at 90 on this date in 2006. Known by her stage name Pramila, she was a movie stunt woman and actress, and the first major woman film producer, creating sixteen movies under her Silver Productions banner. She was also a fashion icon who often designed her own costumes. “To some extent,” according to documentary filmmaker Danny Ben-Moshe, “Jews got involved in Bollywood... through a quirk of cultural circumstance. When Indian cinema began, it was taboo for Hindu and Islamic women to appear onscreen, so initially female roles were played by men, in the style of Shakespeare or Monty Python! However, the Jewish community was more liberal and progressive and they were prepared to take these role[s]. The fact that they had lighter skin made them all the more suited for celluloid.... Jewish women worked on other professions that at the time Hindu and Islamic women shunned, like being telephone operators. The Jews did not regard it as dirty and neither did the viewing public, who adored these stars.”

“A born rebel, she walked out of her conservative Baghdadi Jewish home in Kolkata at 17 to join a theater company.... In a big bad man’s world, she wore the pants and led an interesting personal life.... Her [first show biz] job... was to keep the audiences quiet with her charms during the 15 minutes it took to change reels in the single-projector silent film. You can imagine the courage and conviction it took for someone, who had been a kindergarden headmistress and had pre-university art certificates from London.... Her Orthodox father clobbered her for that but she did not care.” —Sanjay Pendse (her son)