Sunday, 8 December 2013

Merle, Me & A Mansion in the Motherland - The Mystique Of Merle Oberon

On my first junior jaunt back to India, my garrulous, great-grand-mother regaled me with phantasmagorical tales of spooks & sirens & magical manors with maidens so fair. So 'FAIR' I pondered!... In India? Oh yes, the fairest of fair maidens, some of whom courageously crossed the Indian Ocean to seek fame, fortune & felicity.

Pampered, preserved & conserved on celluloid

I was told of the grand home of a great English screen actress who lived in Kolkata - a home I have searched for on countless occasions (Most likely reduced to dust by now, courtesy of a few mustachioed, man-servants with muscles) & a small curiosity I had been trying to unravel since the words 'Palaces' & 'Silver screen' were planted in my brain.

Not the Oberon Mansion but a crumbling neo-baroque 
building-facade in the nicer nooks of Kolkata #

Research indicates that actor Merle Oberon was born in Bombay to an Indian mother & British soldier during occupation (or as it was more commonly referred back then, the days of the British Raj) While this was not 'such' an unusual occurrence for the time, nor too scandalous a revelation for modern times... back then, the progeny of such couplings found themselves caught between cultures, & either elevated or ostracized, depending on the company.

Neon art-work by Nicholas Galanin, echoes offensive signages
found in many public places in India, right up until the 80s *

It is believed, however, being young, ambitious & leveraging her sought-after skin tone & 'masala-mix' beauty, Merle took to the high-seas in the hopes of striking 'Star-Gold' in her new world. Nothing particularly 'new' there, except for what marks this story as particularly tragic. It was not because (like other half castes of her generation) she dubiously concealed her Indian identity, (&, in Merle's case, going to extraordinary lengths to do so) but the fact that the woman she travelled with, & referred to as her 'Ayah' (servant/hired-help) was by way of the Bible, her very own Mother (unbeknownst to anyone else of course, excepting Miss Oberon)!

 Douglas Sirk's 'Imitation of Life' sees Sarah-Jane 
rejecting her mother's 'colour' & denying their relationship **

The actress, whose soft vulnerability & rarefied radiance shone wildly in 'Wuthering Heights', & who wistfully lured men-folk to her siren-call in nearly every movie she starred in, essentially rejected the exotic essence of her being & for all intents & purposes, was vehemently ashamed of her heritage... Heart-breaking.

'Wuthering Heights' 1939. 
Oberon plays the quintessential 'English' Rose

Yes, yes, I know it was but a safe refuge of the time, a legacy of old perceptions & an unwitting survival tactic - but I can't help feeling doleful about it all. Disheartened that such measures had to be taken to extricate oneself from the barbarous associations of a supposedly backward nation.

The Indian Mutiny of 1857
While some were fleeing inequality, others were fighting it ***

Writings proffer that Merle Oberon returned to the Motherland in later life, when the stage-lights dimmed & the need to hide was no longer required... especially as there was nothing left to seek & she was no longer sought.

Living & leaving on the 'low-down'

I wonder whether any peace was had or 'made' with the uncredited lady who 'took care' of the great actress. What sense of self-worth each had, how they reconciled their fine charade & if they felt the price they paid for fame was indeed worth the fortune.

Sizzling & statuesque in a studio still -
Follies Bergere 1935

As for me, I no longer search for the house of the great screen actress in Kolkata. That legend died for me long ago, probably around the time 'hired-help' & 'maid-servant' were planted in my brain... & yet I still adore Merle Oberon as the eponymous Cathy in 'Wuthering Heights'. I muse also at the irony of her many roles where she is cast as the 'exotic' temptress, painted-up, no less, to accentuate her obviously Eurasian features - features she’d have, no doubt, tried to subdue & placate over a lifetime.

Merle perfecting Persian Princess Pose
in 'Night in Paradise' 1946

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Indian Ocean a little boy & his school mates, waited in breathless anticipation for the hungry hang-glider to touch-down in old Melbourne town. It was 1965, & the delicate contents of that giant, mechanical bird in the sky soon spilled out onto the tarmac in eminent style. Along with the crates, cachets & carriers, came the 'STAR' - small, slim, ivory-skinned & hugged tightly by a foxy-white mink stole...Merle Oberon, advanced in age, though ever charming, strode past with an air of vintage pedigree. The social-studies teacher reminded the now infatuated young boys, it took about 11 hours to fly from Kolkata to Melbourne.

KOLKATA... INDIA... JUNGLE-BOOK! - The mind was on a mission....

# The Maharajah mascot of mechanical elevation

The little boy ran home to his mother & his world atlas, both formidable, frequent fonts of knowledge. He pointed to the bendy Bay of Bengal & pronounced euphorically, 'One day I will visit there. I will ride on an elephant. Catch me a tiger. And find me a wife.'

That little boy was my future husband...
Funny how things work out! Xx


Thank you for making space in your day to read my post
#All Writing & #Photos by Rani.C (Char)
#Other images taken from 'The Romantic life of Merle Oberon' - . Fanpix.Net & ''
*Nicholas Galanin
**Screen-Capture from 'Imitation of Life' - Douglas Sirk (Personal Copy)
***From the 'Punch' Victorian Era Cartoon Series 'The Indian Mutiny' (Personal Post-Cards)
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  1. Your writing is so beautiful Rani. what an amazing story. Loved the connection here with your future husband. Life is so full of these surprises. Please do keep these wonderful stories coming

  2. Thanks so much dearest Linda!
    {Not sure why Blogger decided to republish this post a year later???
    Very strange. Perhaps it is a reminder for me to update with some new content!!}....

    Either way, really nice of you to read my ramblings & offer an appreciative word.
    I always imagine I'm writing to myself!!
    With love & gratitude Xx

  3. Enjoyed reading this .. loved the Epilogue! These stories of hiding ancestry are sad, part of the time I'm afraid. And that sign is atrocious- what can you even say to that. Arre your husband just knew. So lucky that guy. Thanks for your wonderful writings ...Roland

    1. Bless Roland! You get it.
      Thanks for stopping by with your sweet words ... after all these years hey, hehe Xx

  4. I'm still wandering through the palace lol and awww this is the best! I think I raved on your old facebook page but I want to leave some woohoos here. Your stories are superb Rani. Like above, you have one lucky husband ,and please, please continue sharing your gifts.
    Lots of love Carli


#Thanks for bringing some extra sparkle & cheer to the Palace today. I'm delighted to read your comments (& Shimmying too!!!)