Sulochana’s was the visage that changed the face of Indian cinema. Before her, the socially-disreputable job of playing cinema heroine was usually assigned to slim young men as even prostitutes refused to exhibit themselves before the whole country.
It was not easy convincing the Anglo Indian Sulochana (Ruby Myers) to take on such a dubious profession. When Mohan Bhavnani of the Kohinoor Film Company first approached this telephone operator, she was, in her quintessentially British India argot, ‘tickled pink’. She turned him down but when he persisted, she gamely agreed, despite having no knowledge of acting whatsoever. But in those early days of cinematic craft, the consideration of paramount importance was her pretty luminosity which shone through in those black, white and silver films. Chubby, petite and brown-eyed, the self-christened Sulochana’s pulchritudinous appeal matched what had been indoctrinated in the Indian psyche for centuries.
After a rumbustious start in adventure hits like Wildcat Of Bombay (where she essayed eight roles), Telephone Girl, Typist Girl (all reminiscent of Hollywood’s The Perils of Pauline series), Sulochana dabbled in several genres like fantasies (Heer Ranjha), stunt films (Punjab Mail), before three romantic superhits in ’28-’29 with director R S Chaudhari — Madhuri, Anarkali and Indira B A — established her as the silent era’s first and foremost star.
So widespread was her fame that it was used to promote khadi too. A little- known fact is that the first Indian talkie venture was a short on Mahatma Gandhi inaugurating a khadi exhibition, alongside which was added a hugely popular dance of Sulochana’s from Madhuri, synchronized with sound effects.
Ironically, when Sulochana’s home company Imperial, launched the first genuine talkie film, Alam Ara in 1931, it was Sulochana’s rival Zubeida who was chosen to play the heroine because of her command over Hindi. Hurt but determined, Sulochana took a year off, learned the language and made an ego- affirming comeback with the record-breaking smash of the talkie version of Madhuri. Further talkie versions of her silent hits followed and with Indira (now an) M A and Anarkali, Sulochana reclaimed her position at the top of the heap. She was once again the highest paid star on the Indian cosmos, drawing Rs 5,000 per month, as compared to Master Vithal’s Rs 2,500; she had the sleekest of cars (Chevrolet 1935) and one of the biggest heroes, D Billimoria, as her lover. With her strong fan base, the powerful Sulochana could dictate terms to Imperial and ensure that between 1933 and 1939 she worked exclusively with her handsome Parsi paramour.
Theirs was the love story of the 20s and the 30s. When it ended, so did their careers, sending Sulochana spiralling down a vortex of crises. She left Imperial to find no outside offers forthcoming. New names were now lapping on the shores of Bollywood, swept by the tidal power of change. The queen now had to make do with imitation jewels.
In 1953, she acted in her third Anarkali, but this time in a supporting role. However, she still had the power to excite controversy. In 1947, Morarji Desai banned the Dilip Kumar-Noorjehan starrer, Jugnu, because it showed such a morally reprehensible act as an aging fellow professor falling for Sulochana’s vintage charms.
The roles kept getting smaller. Worse, Sulochana had seemingly ignored the Jewish side of her ancestry and was now reduced to penny pinching. The original glamour queen of Indian cinema passed away in her Kemp’s Corner flat — aged, alone and penury stricken.
This was the woman who once became famous for drawing a larger salary than the Governor of Bombay!