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Searching for Family

Ramola Devi ... star of Indian cinema

Modern technology has changed the world and through Google or Facebook one can shine a searchlight on a person who is part of a family history. When the discovery has been made, What's App can step into place and assist in taking the blanket off unknown family belonging to the distant past.

Let me take you to Calcutta, India in the mid1930s. The Cohen family was established there after leaving Teheran in the early years of the 20th century. Rachel Cohen was one of the daughters of the teacher and acting rabbi. She was a petite and determined beauty who envisaged a life on the stage. Her first appearances were when she was in her mid-teens. She was then discovered by a film producer who believed in her talents and she made her first film in 1937 as an outcome of his determination.

What was not in the spotlight was the fact that at the tender age of sixteen, she managed to have a romance with a young non-Jewish man and got pregnant. As soon as her Orthodox family was aware of this, her father secretly and speedily converted the father-to-be and married them in the synagogue. And so Samuel Abraham came into the world. The surname Abraham was given to his converted father, who soon disappeared from their lives. Sam was brought up in Rachel's family home in Calcutta. She saw very little of him and it seems this did not bother her at all, as now she had managed to become Ramola Devi and was appearing on the Indian screen. She starred regularly throughout the 1940s, but in 1951, her last film was produced.

In the meantime, Sam was educated in an upper class Christian boarding school and only spent holiday time in the Cohen family home in Calcutta with his grandparents and aunts. He did not have a lot of home happiness; meanwhile Ramola was entrenched in her own life of stardom and fame and also began a romance with a leading pilot of the Indian Air Force who was of French and British extraction. This romance led to marriage and the eventual birth of two daughters in the 1950s. Sam completed his education in St. George's College and tried to find a future for himself. He approached his mother's husband with regard to becoming a pilot too, but that did not work out. He was determined to change his life and his Jewish background brought him in touch with the developing State of Israel which opened a new chapter for him. So off he went, over the seas – not to Ireland (as in the old song) but to Israel. Adventure, challenges and something new beckoned – however not the Air Force but the armed forces and he took part in the Sinai War of 1956 when the Suez Canal crisis involved Israel's armed forces.

Having completed his army service, which took him into the desert, he became captivated by the sands and the dramatic stone mountains that surrounded them and he decided that he would choose one of the options offered to young soldiers finishing their army service, to go and work in the port of Eilat – a new, developing scene. And then I came into the story.

The scene is Eilat, March 1959, scene of the blossoming night club of Rafi Nelson - a small concrete building tucked in between other small houses which were home to families and new residents. The barman passed my friend and me our drinks. He pointed to a curtained corner, so over we go to find that dark-skinned, handsome guy with whom I had exchanged a few glances earlier in the evening in the Phillip Murray building which was the main social center of Eilat. So there he was, lolling on the large cushions that were the seating arrangements and he gestured me to flop down beside him stretching up to hold my glass of gin and lemonade.

And so, let's go to December of the year and the scene is now London and there under a chuppah stand Samuel Abraham and myself, surrounded by members of the Black family from Belfast and the Beacons from Liverpool. But not a soul of Sam's family made an effort to attend the wedding. However Ramola did eventually send us a letter to Eilat containing a small packet of British bank notes as a gift. After the wedding, we returned to live in Eilat and had two wonderful children. But there was a sad ending to that chapter, as I left Sam and Eilat with my son and daughter in 1967. Our lives progressed without a lot of connection with Sam although the children visited Eilat over the years and went to see him. Through the children, I know that he did return to visit India and the remaining family there during the 1970s. And so the years passed by and life continued as is in Israel for our children – army service, travel the world, marriage, the birth of a new generation – my beloved grandchildren who are also are maturing. Then one day – by chance on Facebook I came across a piece on Ramola which I will share with you. 

Great-great-grand-daughter Noy Sommer

Top Comments on Facebook

Barbara Abraham-Vazana: Her great-grand-daughter Noy looks very like her - see Noy Sommer on Face Book

Reply: I am Dena - your sister-in-law. Would love to get in touch with all of you - I am so excited! Please reply. Oops. I am not on Face Book. Used my friend's F.B.

Through this Face Book contact of her friend I did contact her – and how? Well on What's App, of course. Dena is one of Ramola's daughters who divides her life between London and Italy and her sister Linda lives in India. Ramola and Sam are no longer in this world but thanks to the miracle of modern communications, contact has been made for the first time ever and we will hopefully tighten the ties especially for the younger generations. Phone calls and photographs are in the meantime our link. However it would be so interesting to meet and learn more.

Film Heritage Foundation

Born as Rachel Cohen, Ramola Devi is best known for starring in the 1941 smash-hit 'Khazanchi', a landmark film that greatly influenced the use of song sequences afterwards, besides popularizing the use of Punjabi folk music rhythms in film soundtracks. 

The heiress in more trouble than she can fathom was hugely popular. Her screen debut had been in a pivotal role in Kidar Sharma's own directorial debut 'Aulad'/ 'Dil hi toh hai' (1939). Being originally from Calcutta, she acted in a few Bengali !ilms too including Kali Prasad Ghosh's famous 'Jajsaheber Natni' (1943). She also featured in the very popular Hindi film 'Hum bhi insaan hain' (1948) opposite a relatively new Dev Anand. Other films that featured her include 'Qaidi' (1940), 'Sawan Aaya Re' (1949), 'Rimjhim (1949) and 'Khamoshi' (1951). 



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Monday, 17 June 2024

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