Before the beginning of the biggest international beauty contest, Miss World, Esther Victoria Abraham was crowned as the first Miss India in 1947 when she was 31.Born in Calcutta on 30 December 1916 to a Baghdadi Jewish family, she was the daughter of Reuben Abraham, a businessman from Calcutta and Matilda Isaac, from Karachi. After the marriage, Matilda came to Calcutta to live with his husband in his large joint family home at 9 Bentinck Street, Bowbazar. It was a three-storied building with godowns and outhouses. Among her seven siblings, Esther was the eldest.
At the beginning, Esther was admitted to Calcutta Girls’ High School. But, as the family means declined, the Abrahams moved to Ripon Street and Esther was shifted to St James, which was closer to their new place. Esther was a good student and a very talented sports person. Apart from being a good hockey player, she was also very good at drawing, and on graduating from High School qualified and received an Arts Degree, administered from Cambridge. After completing her high school degree, she joined to work as a kindergarten teacher in the Talmud Torah Boy’s School.
However, the stunning looking young teacher had fiery ambition in her heart and despite having completed her B.Ed. degree, she did not stay long in the teaching profession. She liked the Hindi movies and was interested in theatre. In fact, her entire family was quite exposed to Indian dance and music.
Esther admired her cousin Rose Ezra and her sister Sophie, who had left Calcutta to join the Bombay film industry and a visit to them in Bombay changed the course of her life. Director RS Chowdhari spotted Esther while she visited the studio where Rose was acting in ‘The Return of the Toofan Mail’. Esther was given a screen test then and there and was signed up immediately. That was her first step in the Bombay film industry, though ‘The Return of the Toofan Mail’ was never completed. Nevertheless, she was signed up to work at Irani’s Imperial Company and was loaned to ‘Movietone’ to play a westernized vamp in ‘Bhikaran’. It was released in 1935 and Esther’s Anglicized Hindi became a hot rage. After that stage, she was given a screen name, Pramila, by Baburao Pendharkar, a reputed actor and director in those days. Since then, she acted in many films as Pramila, including Ulti Ganga, the first version of Mother India, Bijli, Burra Nawab Sahib, Jungle King, Shahzadi, Jhankar, Our Darling Daughter, Maha Maya, Basant, Bekasoor, and other popular Hindi films. Often she also played the role of the Vamp. Her last film was ‘Thaang’ (2006), directed by Amol Palekar. It may seem unbelievable, but the Bollywood hit song, ‘Choli ke peeche’ was originally written by DM Madhok for her performance, years before Madhuri Dixit did it.
In 1939 Esther married Bollywood film star, Syed Hasan Ali Zaidi, whose screen name was Kumar. Esther’s name was made out as Shabnam Begum Ali in the Nikhanama but, she remained a practicing Jewess till her end. Zaidi’s first wife lived in Lucknow with her children, but after the marriage Zaidi lived with Esther in Bombay lavishly. In those heady days, Pramila was one of the most favourite models of AJ Patel and even got a couple of film offers from Hollywood. The outbreak of the War came in the way of those offers materializing.
Esther was voted as the first Miss India in 1947 when she was 31 and was pregnant with her fifth child. She received the Miss India trophy and crown at Liberty Cinema from Moraji Desai. Later, in an interview she said that, in those days the rules and regulations for the pageant were not formally laid down and the Miss India pageant was actually, a popular-face contest. Since in those days her face used to appear on the cover of most of the popular magazines, she was automatically chosen. Strangely, twenty years later in 1967, her daughter Naqi Jahan was crowned as Miss India.
The glamorous couple had four children. Later, when Zaidi decided to join his elder brother who moved from Lucknow to Pakistan along with his extended family, Esther refused to accompany him and stayed on in India with her five children. He left for Pakistan, leaving Esther in debt. The family building had been mortgaged for Rs 1 lakh, which is equivalent to crores of rupees today. Some of its flats had also been requisitioned by the government. But, Esther was a born fighter and unlike other film people, she gave up all trappings of stardom, travelled in public buses to fight court battles. She used her film finances to ward off auctions on two occasions and a civic injuction on another. She shunned the limelight, but brought up her four sons and a daughter and finally won the colossal battle to get back her property in Mumbai's Shiva ji Park area from the clutches of creditors and the authorities. At one time, she was even wrongly arrested by the then Bombay chief minister Morarji Desai and harassed by the police, as she was suspected of spying for Pakistani, due to her constant travels to that country to promote her films.
Esther wasthe first major woman film producer, with 16 films under her Silver Productions banner. She died 6 August 2006, five months short of her ninetieth birthday.