White Skin/Brown Masks: The Case of ‘White’ Actresses From Silent to Early Sound Period in Bombay





cinema, Bombay, reinvention, Anglo Indian, Jewish, Actress, gender, race


My paper explores categories of gender, ethnicity, modernity and performance through the figure of the ‘white’ actress in the early years of Indian cinema (1920-1940). Film was a lucrative site of business for intrepidly ambitious individuals in search of reinvention in Bombay. For women from ‘white’ backgrounds, cinema became a means to recast their identity; helping them reclaim the public sphere in new and radical ways. The trace of ‘white’ actresses in the history of Indian cinema configures and transforms the status of performers and performance from the silent to the early sound period. The industry attracted a large number of Anglo Indian, Eurasian and Jewish girls, who became the first group of women to join the industry uninhibited by the social opprobrium against film work. I use hagiographic records, film reviews and stills to map the roles women from the Anglo Indian and Jewish communities were dressed up to ‘play’ in the films. These roles helped perpetuate certain stereotypes about women from these communities as well as impinged on the ways that their identity was configured. Through the history of the Anglo Indian and Jewish women in the larger public sphere I lay out and highlight the field from where individuals and personalities emerged to participate in the cinematic process. I see the community as marking and inflecting a system of signs on the body of these women through which identity was constructed and their attempts at reinvention were engendered - a process of individuation, of ‘being’ and of being framed within a particular logic of the popular imaginary frames of representation.

Author Biography

Sarah Rahman Niazi, University of Westminster

PhD Researcher at Centre for Research and Education in Arts and Media (CREAM) , Wesminster School of Media Art and Design, Univeristy of Westminster.


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How to Cite

Niazi, S. R. (2019) “White Skin/Brown Masks: The Case of ‘White’ Actresses From Silent to Early Sound Period in Bombay”, Culture Unbound, 10(3), pp. 332–352. doi: 10.3384/cu.2000.1525.2018103332.



Critical Explorations of Media Modernity in India