Indians in Hollywood

Meet Sujata and Asoka, the Indo-German dancers who charmed Hollywood in the 1950s

The couple featured in adventure films and also turned up in Federico Fellini’s ‘Juliet of the Spirits’.

It was a dancing partnership with the unlikeliest of beginnings. In 1939, as the Second World War broke out in Europe, its reverberations were felt in India too. Ernst Rubener, a German dancer who had travelled to India to learn bharatanatyam, found himself interned by the British government in a prisoner of war camp. The British were meticulous in separating Nazi sympathisers from the other Germans, and Rubener found himself with the latter group in Dehradun. There, Rubener met the German scholar and Buddhist monk Lama Angarika Govinda (formerly Ernst Hoffman).

Despite the privations of prison life, Rubener not only gave the odd dance recital for the British officers and his fellow prisoners, but was also initiated by Govinda into Tibetan Buddhism. In prison, Rubener had clandestine access to a few magazines. It was in one of these that he found a photo of a dancer called Zohra that he had pinned to his wall, resolving to meet her one day.

Asoka and Sujata.
Asoka and Sujata.

In keeping with the fairy tale flavour of this story, the two dancers did meet – at a recital organised soon after the war by the Maharaja of Kapurthala. They would be married in 1947, a union that had Govinda’s blessings. It was also the Lama who gave the couple names drawn from Buddhist history with which they would come to be known: Sujata, the Buddha’s disciple in his last days, and Asoka, the king who preached the Buddha’s message of Ahimsa and Dharma.

Asoka had been inspired by photos of the great dancer Uday Shankar and had left home for India in the 1930s. Little is known of Sujata’s early life. She was born Zohra into a Christian family from Mumbai, and her parents, despite their early misgivings, seem to have given in to her early fascination for dance.

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‘Dancing in Love’.

A recital in the late ’40s at Taj Mahal hotel in Mumbai earned the couple rave reviews. An invitation to perform at Paris’s Lido theatre and a tour of Europe followed. The pair’s journey to America came soon after, and in the early ’50s, they were known as Hollywood’s dancing couple.

Sujata appeared as Marguerita in one of her rare speaking roles in the episode The Mexican Gun Running Story from the popular television Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok, in 1952. Also in that year, Sujata and Asoka choreographed and performed the Oriental dance sequence for the Rita Hayworth starrer Salome, based on the Old Testament story. The sequence featuring the duo takes place in King Herod’s court.

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A Spanish dub of ‘Salome’, featuring Sujata and Asoka.

Sujata and Asoka featured in several other dance sequences in Orientalist adventure movies depicting pirates, rebels in colonial India and diamond hunters, including Caribbean (1952) and Fair Wind to Java (1953). Sujata and Asoka typically twirled as the intrepid European adventurer awaited a dire fate.

The popular Oriental motif of precious stones appeared in the Arlene Dahl and Fernando Lamas film The Diamond Queen (1953). Lamas plays Tavernier, the traveller who in real life did visit several parts of Mughal India, alongside Gilbert Roland. In the film, Lamas and Roland journey to India, where Lamas falls in love with Princess Maya of Nepal (Arlene Dahl as an early example of Hollywood white-washing). The adventurers are captured and wait with bated breath as a fire dancer (Asoka) performs. Their fates rest on the changing colour of his hand-held flames. Sujata appears later on in the film even as Prince Jehan, the Mughal ruler of Golconda (Hollywood wasn’t exactly clear on its history) seeks to woo the princess.

Flame of Calcutta is set in the 1760s, a time when the French and British trading companies are equal powers in the Eastern city and trying to stay aloof from local conspiracies and rival native princes battling for power. Replete with Orientalist stereotyping, the movie’s posters also made leering mention of the orgies and dances that were evidently a staple of any court on this side of the globe.

The Indian revolt of 1857 was the backdrop for Bengal Brigade (1954) and King of the Khyber Rifles. In Bengal Brigade, Vivian (Arlene Dahl) is the love interest of British officer Captain Claybourne (Rock Hudson). It is in the court of a native chief, during a dance sequence performed exclusively for Claybourne and Vivian, that they acknowledge and declare their love for each other.

King of the Khyber Rifles takes its title from a Talbot Mundy novel, but deviates considerably from the original plot. The movie features a British secret agent in the North West Frontier Province during the tumultuous 1850s, who is regarded suspiciously even by his own soldiers for he is of mixed parentage. Yet, his familiarity with local ways make him the main interlocutor in negotiations with the rebel Muslim chief. The dances appear as part of camp embellishments, as they would in films of this genre.

Sujata and Asoka’s movie appearances were interspersed between their lengthier dance recitals, for which they travelled widely. Sujata was not entirely satisfied with performing in Hollywood productions, as she reveals in the documentary Sujata and Asoka, Dancing in Love, but the movies did make them popular.

Sujata and Asoka also featured in an episode of the television series The Wild Wild West, called The Night of the Cobra. They appear as dancers in the court of the Maharaja of Rampur, played by Boris Karloff in an unlikely role. It’s a sequence in which the audience includes the king’s pet elephant calf and tiger and a gorilla with terpsichorean skills.

One film that got them attention in Europe was Italian master Federico Fellini’s fantasy-laden Juliet of the Spirits (1964). Sujata and Asoka appear not as dancers, but as helpers and attendants of an elderly lady, in a hypnotic, dream-like sequence – an effect enhanced by Sujata’s graceful gestures and mystical references to concepts such as illusion and the evanescence of life.

Sujata and Asoka in ‘Juliet of the Spirits’.
Sujata and Asoka in ‘Juliet of the Spirits’.

Before they settled down in their later years in Sedona in Arizona, Sujata and Asoka ran a café at the Pacificulture Asia Museum in Pasadena in California. Sujata’s recipe for chicken wings was particularly popular. Her special culinary trick was to mix dry spices with cider vinegar that made the wings mildly spicy and imparted a wonderful aroma hard to replicate. Sujata died in 1993, Asoka in 1997.

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‘In God We Dance’.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.