The saga of independent India’s first-ever beauty queen came to a close on August 6 2006, when Esther Abraham, screen name Pramila, faded into an eternal dissolve.
A born rebel, she walked out of her conservative Baghdadi Jewish home in Kolkata at 17 to join a theatre company. She went on to realise her real dream and blazed across the Indian screen as a vamp and a fearless stunt star in 30 films, including Ulti Ganga, Bijli, Basant and Jungle King. She became the first major woman film producer, with 16 films under her Silver Productions banner.
D M Madhok wrote Choli Ke Andar lyrics for her years before Madhuri Dixit was born and then Bombay chief minister Morarji Desai had her wrongly arrested as a Pakistani spy because of her visits to that country to distribute films.
In a big bad man’s world, she wore the pants and led an interesting personal life. As a teenager, she eloped with Marwari theatre director Manicklal Dangi. She later married actor Kumar (who appeared in Mughal-e-Azam and Shri 420) before settling down to live with Parsi filmmaker Nari Gadhali for four decades after Kumar migrated to Pakistan in 1963.
In those four decades, she shunned the limelight, brought up her four sons and a daughter and waged a colossal battle to get back her property in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park area from the clutches of creditors and authorities.
With a whirlwind life like that, even the most stout-hearted scriptwriter would hesitate to pen her biopic. Her youngest son actor Hyder Ali of television series Nukkad-fame pays a very personal tribute here:
My ma may be known for dash and feisty spirit but it did not come up only when she was cornered. It was her trait. It appeared in everything she did.
I asked her what is was about her that Amol Palekar wanted her to act in his Marathi film, Thang, at 90. How do you manage to be the centre of attraction even now, I asked her.
She said, ‘Haidoo, you have to command what you want. If you do not get it, demand it. If you still don’t get it, grab it. If you still do not get it you to kill to get it. If you worry about what the world thinks, you will waver from your goal.’
She was like that. She never cared too hoots if the world was shocked, embarrassed… right from the day she walked out of her house.
She hurt people in the process but she was able to compensate because she succeeded financially. She never took from people, she only gave. Throughout, she remained economically independent and died as a landlady.
Charting your own independent path was easier said than done. When she wanted to emulate the success of her cousin in Bollywood as a Kolkata teenager, she joined a Parsi travelling theatre company.
Her 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.
Her spirit showed again when our father left for Pakistan, leaving us in debt. Our family building had been mortgaged for Rs 1 lakh (easily equivalent to crores of rupees today). Some of its flats had been requisitioned by the government. Unlike other film people, she gave up all trappings of stardom, travelled in public buses to fight court battles. She juggled her film finances to ward off auctions on two occasions and a civic injuction on another.
She wanted all of us to join cinema. Only I stand devoted to it. My siblings said it is too irregular a profession. My mom said, all life is irregular. That was her message to us. Never give up. You have keep trying and trying all the time till your last breath and the opportunity will create itself – Sanjay Pendse