Wednesday, June 1, 2011

One Century, Two Actresses, Big Choices

Estelle Merle Thompson, born a hundred years ago into a humble Indian family, became one of the world’s most noted actresses, and not just professionally.
Born in Bombay, British India, in 1911, to a Sinhalese mother and an English (or perhaps Irish) father, Estelle grew up dirt poor, living in a shabby Mumbai flat with her single mother and five siblings. In 1917, she moved to Calcutta, where she was lucky enough to receive a scholarship to an exclusive private school for girls. She didn’t last long there, quitting school after being teased for her mixed heritage and opting instead to receive tuition at home.

By the time she was 18, Estelle had developed a passion for acting, watching films, and going to nightclubs. She dated an English actor who promised to help break her into the acting world if only she could find her way to a particular movie studio in France. It’s possible he sponsored her trip, because she and her mother were able to pack up all their belongings and get themselves to Nice. As a result of this acquaintance, by the late 1920s, Estelle appeared as an extra or in other minor or unbilled roles under the name “Queenie O’Brien,” receiving at least one offer because of her “exotic” looks.

Within the span of a few short years, Estelle hopped from France to England and eventually to Hollywood. By 1933, her career had taken off under a new stage name, Merle Oberon, the one in which the world would remember her by.

Merle Oberon achieved dazzling fame in the 1930s and 1940s, playing the glamorous leading lady in many classic films – Wuthering Heights (opposite Laurence Olivier), The Scarlet Pimpernel (with Leslie Howard), as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (with Charles Laughton). In 1935, she was nominated for an Oscar for best actress for her role in Dark Angel. She enjoyed a glamorous, jet-setting lifestyle as a starlet during the Golden Age of Hollywood. She played both royalty and high-society dames in her famous movies, romanced the likes of David Niven (a heartthrob in his day), and married at least four times before she ultimately died after suffering a stroke at the age of 68 in Malibu, California.

I’ve always been fascinated by this actress. Her Indian background was revealed through an unauthorized biography only after she died. Throughout her life, Oberon guarded her secret closely, though it wasn’t easy. When her dark-skinned mother was around, Oberon told people she was the maid. When her brother came to visit her in Los Angeles, Oberon refused to see him and had him turned away. Oberon also led everyone to believe she was from… of all places, Tasmania.

Why Tasmania? Probably because it sounded exotic and remote (all the better that it was hard to fact check) while still vaguely white and western. In 1978, a year before she died, she bizarrely accepted an invitation to Hobart, Tasmania, to be honored as one of its hometown heroes. Bizarre because we now know that she’d never stepped foot on Tasmanian soil until that point. (Sad but true, her husband at the time urged her to accept the invitation, because he wanted to see the place where she grew up, and she couldn’t find a way to fanagle out of it without telling him the truth. She spent a large chunk of that trip in her hotel room, suffering from some mystery ailment, and collapsed at the main event itself and had to be helped back to her hotel early.)

(Photo: David Shankbone)
Fast forward a hundred years to a sort of reverse story. Sarita Catherine Louise Choudhury, born in England to a Bengali father and English mother, carved a very different acting career from her mixed heritage. For one thing, she used her real name, the ethnic one. Raised in Jamaica, Mexico, and Italy, and completing two university degrees in Canada may have expanded her mind to the possibilities of breaking out of the stereotypes. 

Sarita Choudhury isn’t a Hollywood starlet like Oberon was but that’s in part the path she forged, preferring complex, independent productions over big budget, blockbuster ones. And her exotic looks and knack with accents has made it easy for casting agents to place her in a diverse range of roles, which she continues to embrace.

Her first film role, as an Indian-American lead in a major mainstream movie, Mississippi Masala, made her a household name both in India and its diaspora. Following the surprise success of that film, Choudhury has played a stunning array of roles: as a Pakistani country-western singer in the 1992 film Wild West, a Chilean maid in the 1993 film adaptation of The House of Spirits, a lesbian mother in 1994’s Fresh Kill, and a Bosnian refugee  in 2001’s 3 A.M. She’s also appeared in multiple genres—mystery (A Perfect Murder) and fantasy (M. Night Shyamalan’s The Lady in the Water)—and taken on bold roles such as Queen Tara in Mira Nair’s sexually frank period piece, Kama Sutra: A Tale of Love.

Choudhury’s presence isn’t limited to the big screen either; she’s appeared on stage in 2004’s Roar and on television, with recurring roles in two NBC serials, Kings and Deadlines, as well as guest spots on popular shows such as Law and Order.

Last year, the single mom moved herself and her young daughter to India to shoot her first Indian-made film, For Real. In media interviews, Choudhury appears to view her move to India as one of her most celebrated adventures, including the chance to reconnect with her roots.

Living in different times, with more progressive outlooks, opportunities, and cultural mores, obviously caused these women to take divergent paths, but doesn’t it kind of make you wonder what Oberon’s life would have been like had she been born in our times, with circumstances similar to Choudhury’s? What choices would she have made?

In one sense, acting freed Oberon from her humble roots, allowing her to pursue fame and fortune, to redefine her past and her future. But for me, growing up Indian-American and hearing Oberon’s story, I always found it a slap in the face, that she found it better to live such a large lie than to just be herself (a powerful message for me at a time when there were few, if any, Asian-American role models, especially South Asian ones). I’d wondered, of course, whether she’d ever regretted her choices but even more, how and why she went through the charade at all. She couldn’t have died thinking the shame and secrecy had been worth it, could she? But it wasn’t only a career decision; she obviously hid her secret even from those closest to her. 

At what point, did it go from being a circumstance dictated by external forces to her own choice?

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