David Abraham Chewoolkar

By: Bension Abraham Chewoolkar

Today starts the centenary year for late Uncle David (Born on June 21, 1908 – Died on January 2, 1982).

I am sure that every grown up member of our Chewoolkar clan and extended family has his / her own Uncle David story.

I am jotting down a few pointers that are known to me personally, and I invite all others to join in and bring in their own personal contribution to celebrate the life and times of one of the worlds finest and most humane persons that we all had the privilege to know and love and call him our own.

Three of his most memorable quotes that I remember are:

“Like other famous Movie stars I did not build houses, I built up homes”

“Please take away politics from sport, and introduce sporting values in politics”

“When you prolong argument with a fool, you only prove that there are two of them.”

But enough with the homilies, let us get down to some facts about this great person.

He was born on 21st June 1908, the youngest child of Abraham and Dinah Chewoolkar, really as they say in Israel, Ben-Zekunim, as his father had long retired from an illustrious career in the Indian Railways, and his mother was already in her mid-forties.

His father past on when he was just six years old, and David came under the protection and tutelage of his elder brothers, he was specially attached to his brother Shalome who was 12 years older and who had dreams to make David a famous lawyer. While fulfilling his brother’s dream, by being a good prize winning student and getting ultimately a law degree, having been educated in the then famous school in Bombay, St. Josephs and the even more famous, Wilson college, in both institutions he made a mark with his leadership qualities, his oratorio and debating skills, as also his ability to pick up and speak various European and Indian languages. But what attracted him most, was Drama and the stage, and at a very young age he had decided to be an actor. He pursued his own private dream vigorously joining up with a variety of drama schools and being in the company of actors in the fledgling film industry coming up not far from where he lived in Parel in the heart of Bombay.

David and his family were always interested in sport and physical culture, in fact it was genetic in them, his father being a successful wrestler and his elder brothers also tried their hand at the sport, but David found interest in the newly developing sport of weightlifting, and so he joined a gym where many of the young film people were seen and he could also develop his own interest in weightlifting.

The friendships he made here lasted him a lifetime, and included such screen luminaries apart from David himself, names such as Prithvi Singh, Jairaj, Naimpally, K.N. Singh, Mubarak, Amoul Palekar and famous Photographer Dattu Koparde.

All the period, as a student and in his search for his dream, David who was blessed with a very unique and dignified voice, developed as a tool of his trade, using every opportunity to give expression to what may be called voice culture. Every social function in and around Bombay and every sports meet was never complete unless it was presented and announced by and compared by David. In fact all these functions and meets got added importance when they advertised that David was the Master Of Ceremonies.

In the meanwhile the fledgling film industry got a new phenomenon the Talkie, and it became imperative to use a voice like David’s, so in the early thirties he just lent his voice to a couple of films directed by his college friend K.A. Abbas, and produced by another of his youthful friend Bhavnani. Then in 1936, David got his first film appearance on the screen, he played the evil scientist in Bhavnani’s Zambo Ka Beta (a film of the Tarzan genre), the film was a moderate success, but the film critics and other film personalities, recognized the immense talent that was David.

Thereafter there was no stopping him. In the next forty odd years he appeared in over 250 films sometimes doing four or five films at a time. By this time the Indian film industry had come into its own, and the international market was opening up for Indian artists. David had his share acting with Marie Windsor and Ceasar Romero in “The River”, with Horst Bucholz and Jose Ferrer in “Nine Hours To Rama” and in an Indo-Russian venture called “Pardesi”.

In this while, Indian film delegation was being invited abroad and he was asked to be the joint leader of the very first Delegation to Hollywood in 1952. In that time film industry was growing at an enormous pace and he had a great hand in it playing all sorts of characters from cooks to Kings, comedies, melodramas, tragedies and actions too.

A leading Film magazine decided to create Awards on the style of the Oscar, and in its second year when the category of supporting actor was created, David received the award for his most memorial role of John Chacha, an illicit lame bootlegger with a heart of gold. (heart of gold was part of his personal life and written into his soul). These award ceremonies were always hosted by David, however, in 1956, the producers of the show were able to get the then President of Egypt Gamal Abdel Nasser to be the chief guest, and the organizers felt that their important Chief Guest might take umbrage to being hosted by the Jewish David, so they decided to go a different way, somehow the plan came to the ears of the Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and under his express orders it was decided that David, and David alone shall be the host of the function and if this was not to the taste of the Honoured Chief Guest it would be his loss. Everything b’Ezrat Hashem went well and the show was a resounding success. Since this incident Mr. Nehru’s instructions were that every National or International cultural event that was held in India must be hosted by David.

One such event was held in 1963 in Delhi in memory of the fallen of the Indo-Chinese war of 1962, after the event most performing artist were invited to Mr. Nehru’s palace, but he singled out David for his personal attention and as we all have a copy of the famous photograph where we see the closeness that Mr. Nehru had for him and in due course led to David being conferred with the Padmashri, probably the first Indian Jew to be so honoured.

No account will be complete unless we mention some of his most memorable films. I am including a representative list, in random order. I wonder if Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of films in which he appeared and if so maybe some one will help us to get one. In any case in which ever film he appeared and no matter the size of his role if it was a mere cameo appearance or a meaty villain piece, or a kindly patron or a doting father or uncle or even a mythological character, he was always observed by the film journalist and critics and to the best of my knowledge, never received a bad review. Even films that did not do so well always had as their saving grace a good mention for his role in the film from the press.

Apart from his very first film mentioned earlier, and the other International films also mentioned earlier, here is a list:

Panna; Kismet (This film had a record that it played for three years continuously at a theatre in Calcutta), Draupadi, Nala Damayanti, Apna Ghar, Shehnai, Boot Polish, Rahi, Shehar aur Sapna, Mahatma (in Marathi) Himalya Ki Godmein, Ek phool do mali, Baton Baton Mein, Hatti mere sati, Das Namri, Satyam Shivam Sundaram and so on and so forth. He also made a film in Gujarati (the name escapes me) and he was honoured to be called upon by Satyajit Ray to perform in his unique Hindi film Shatranj Ke Khiladi.

In the mid fifties two famous studios in Madras, Gemini and AVM, started making films in Hindi. David became quite a fixture with them and made a series of films there such as Mangala, Chori Chori, Bhai Bhai and many more.

Anyone and everyone is welcome to add to the list of films as I know my list is too brief.

Now I would like to go into another phase of his life. As mentioned earlier he was a great lover of sport and all his spare time was devoted to the promotion of sports in India. He was President of The Bombay/Maharashtra Weight lifting federation for nearly fifty years. He was also Vice President of the Indian Weightlifting Federation for over thirty five years and also served on the Indian Olympic Committee for a numerous years. It was due to his efforts that International Body Building and Weightlifting stars visited Bombay to name only a few: the Iranian pocket hercules Mahmoud Namdjou, the American stars Tommy Kono and Richard Bergman, and the Russian super-giants Yuri Vlasov and Vassily Alecsiv.

His work on the Indian Board brought him into contact with International Bodies for the Sport and he served for nearly thirty years on the International Weight lifting federation, and in 1975 was awarded a special medallion for his service to the International body and the Sport (this was at the World Weightlifting Competition held that year in Lima Peru).

Naturally all this international activity also made him a part of the Indian delegations to the various Olympic events, which he attended regularly 1952 Helsinki, 1960 Rome, 1964 Tokyo, 1968 Mexico and 1972 Munich. In Munich he was witness to the evil face of terrorism and he lost some of his friends who were part of the Israeli Delegation. He was involved also in promoting Jewish Sport and attended two Maccabiah in Israel in 1957 and again in 1961 both times as head of the Indian Jewish delegation to these games.

His involvement with sport led him to be an active member in leading clubs in Bombay such as Cricket Club of India (CCI) and the Bombay Gym-khana and The National Sports Club with facilities in Bombay and New Delhi. He was a permanent fixture at the CCI and held his important meetings there and they had a place in the Club house known as David’s Corner.

There was another facet to his life, and that was his very deep involvement with Freemasons.

He was a member of quite a few lodges, but preferred the one with the Scottish ritual. He attained some of the highest degrees in Freemasonry and there are any number of photographs of him in the full regalia. As I do not really know much about Freemasons, maybe some of the other members of the family who themselves are Freemasons attaining highest of Degrees in that field can throw more light on this part of Uncle David’s life.

He was a voracious reader, and had a personal library which could have been an envy to any other Public Library, and he had read almost each and every book in his library. He never borrowed a book and if any book was recommended, he immediately went out and bought it, read it and put it away in his library. In fact two leading bookstores in Bombay had an ever open account for him to indulge in his deep-seated love of books and reading. He truly believed like John Ruskin, that Books were the Kings Treasures.

In all this activity one may well ask, but what of his family life. For a lifelong confirmed bachelor, he had a very full family life. 

His day started with a big breakfast with his brother Shalome, over which all family items were talked out, discussed, analyzed and solutions and actions needed were decided upon and so implemented. These included all and any of the family members and their specific needs; from the simplest of requirements, to earth shaking announcements, all were discussed with the usual cool and understanding spirit for which both these brothers have become famous and in almost every case they always found a positive solution.

Even when he was at night-shooting of his films, he made it a point to be back in time to have his breakfast meet with his brother, and on such occasions he never forgot to pick up a very special silver-foiled rose petal covered jilebi from Joshi Budda Kaka’s shop in Dadar. For us as children this was a festive treat.

Uncle David was not a religious man, but he always said a brief prayer everyday and on every Yom Kippur no matter where he was, he always observed a strict Fast and if possible always attended the Neila service. Psalm 23 was his favourite one and every youngster in the family, nephews, nieces, grand nephews and grand nieces were taught this Psalm by him and were asked to recite it at all the family functions, the youngest member was normally picked upon to do this honour.

Education was for him of the foremost importance and he always found time to keep up with the progress that all his nephews and nieces made in their academic life , and always made time to see that each one was well equipped for his/her academic requirements and there never was a lack for any reason whatsoever, and no one can ever say that there was a lacuna in his studies because some item was lacking.

In 1972 he suffered a massive heart attack, and though it slowed him down a bit, he did not give up any of his passion, he topped living in his family’s walk-up apartment in Parel and took a small ground floor apartment at the CCI Chambers, but still kept on his close contact with his family having at least a weekly meeting either at his apartment or as he recovered in the old family place. This continued on till the family got separated by migration to Israel in the spring of 1978, and he himself decided to wind up his affairs and migrate to Canada to be with his nephew Victor and niece Diana.

I would have liked to say the last word on this tremendous dynamo of a life, but as I and my family had moved to Israel and he had opted to be in Canada, whereto he still led a vigorous lifestyle and involved himself in the social scene, so it will be fitting for someone in Canada who was a witness to the phenomenon we know as Uncle David to write the last chapter to this review of his life and times…

By: Bension Abraham Chewoolkar – Beer-Sheva, Israel

© Thursday 21st June 2007

Uncle David in Canada

By: Diana Abraham

David immigrated to Canada in June 1979 after a long career in acting from the Indian Film Industry. He was a well know and much loved character actor. He lived in Hamilton with his family. Although he had retired, it did not stop him from acting. He made a movie after retirement in India and a movie in Canada called “Love in Canada”. He also acted in a play in Hamilton about the Holocaust. He also made a documentary called “Bridges” for the Film Board of Canada. He did several stage shows, acting as a Master of Ceremonies for many visiting artists from India.

On December 27, 1981, David suffered a massive stroke and died in Toronto at the North York General Hospital on Saturday, January 2, 1982. He is buried in Hamilton in the Beth Jacob Synagogue Cemetery.