Merle Oberon: India's unrecognized Hollywood celebrity

Merle Oberon: India’s unrecognized Hollywood celebrity

Merle Oberon is an iconic Hollywood star from the black-and-white era is a lost icon in India the country where her birthplace.
Merle Oberon: India's unrecognized  Hollywood celebrity
Merle Oberon: India’s unrecognized Hollywood celebrity

Famous for her role as the leading role in the movie classic Wuthering Heights, Oberon was an Anglo-Indian, born from Bombay at the time of 1911. As a star during the Hollywood’s Golden Age, she kept her true identity a secret, pretending to be white throughout her career.

Mayukh Sen, who is U.S.-based writer and academic, initially came across her work in the year 2009 after he discovered she was Oberon became the very first person from South Asian origin to be nominated for an Oscar.

The fascination increased as he watched her films and dug into her history. “As a queer person, I empathise with this feeling that you must hide a part of your identity to survive in a hostile society that isn’t really ready to accept who you are,” Sen declares. Sen is currently creating a biography that will describe Oberon’s life from the South Asian perspective.

The girl was named Estelle M. O’Brien Thompson, a native of Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1911. The mother she had was part of the Sinhalese, and part-Maori , while her dad was British.


The family relocated into Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1917 following the death of her father in 1914. Oberon began her career in acting with Calcutta Amateur Theatrical Society. Calcutta Amateur Theatrical Society in the 1920s.

In 1925, following the viewing of her first silent film called The Dark Angel, Oberon was inspired by the film’s actress, Vilma Banky, to be an actress, as per Sen. Oberon moved to France in 1928, after an officer colonel introduced her the director Rex Ingram who gave her bits of his films.

The mother of Oberon’s Charlotte Selby, who had darker skin tone, accompanied her in her role as Oberon’s maid.

Image caption: The performance of Oberon in Wuthering Heat, opposite Laurence Olivier, cemented her place in Hollywood

The documentary from the year 2014 known as The Trouble with Merle later discovered that Selby was actually Oberon’s grandmother. Selby’s daughter Constance was Oberon when she was a teenager, but the two were believed to have been brought up as sisters for a few years.

Her first big breakthrough was via the Sir Alexander Korda – a filmmaker she later would marry who cast her in the role of Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933).

The publicists of Korda reported that they had to come up with an explanation of her race.

“Tasmania was chosen as her new birthplace because it was so far from the US and Europe and was generally considered to be ‘British’ to its core,” Maree Delofski, the director of the documentary The Trouble with Merle, wrote in her notes about the documentary.


Oberon was portrayed as a high-class woman from Hobart who emigrated to India after her father passed away in a hunting accident Delofski told the Herald.

Oberon However, she soon became a part of the local culture of Tasmania and throughout her life, Australian media followed her with great interest and pride. Even she acknowledged Tasmania as her home town, but did not mention Calcutta.

Image caption, Oberon’s breakthrough part was in the role of Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII

But Calcutta remembered her. “In the 1920s and 1930s, there were passing mentions of her in the memoirs of a lot of Englishmen,” journalist Sunanda K Datta Ray explains.

“People claimed she was born in the city, that she was an operator at the switchboard of the telephone exchange and that she won a contest at Firpo’s restaurant.”

In the course of acquiring further Hollywood movies, Oberon moved to the US and was awarded the Oscar for her performance as the Dark Angel. The Dark Angel.

It is her role in the film of 1939, Wuthering Heights, opposite acting legend Laurence Olivier, that cemented her spot in the business.


Sen was said to have been chosen instead of Vivien Leigh, a second Indian actress, because the group behind the film believed she had a better name, Sen says.

The New York Times review of the film claimed that Oberon was able to “perfectly caught the restless, changeling spirit of the Bronte heroine”.

The 1930s of the late 1930s ushered Oberon into the so-called big world, Sen says. Her inner circle contained figures such as music composer Cole Porter and playwright Noel Coward.

Image caption, Filmmaker Sir Alexander Korda was Oberon’s first husband.

Korda as well as veteran actor Samuel Goldwyn helped Oberon assimilate and tame her accent, which could have revealed the South Asian origins, Sen states.

The secret of Oberon’s was heavy on her, even though her pale skin helped her to appear the white screen.

“She still often felt the need to silence frequent murmurs that she was mixed race. Film journalists of her era would note her tanner complexion,” Sen states.

According to some accounts, her skin had been damaged due to bleaching or skin-whitening treatments.

When Oberon sustained injuries, and had her face scarred after a car crash in 1937 the cinematographer Lucien Ballard famously developed a technique to illuminate her with a method that helped conceal her imperfections. (Oberon split with Korda and got married to Ballard in 1945.)

“Some sources have suggested that the technique was also a way to ‘whiten’ Merle’s face before the camera,” Sen adds.

Her nephew Michael Korda, who published the family’s memoir Charmed Lives in 1979, stated that he concealed details about her life when her threats to sue over the inclusion of her real name and her birthplace.

Image caption, Oberon and her supporters put in a concerted effort to conceal her past

“I had assumed that enough water had passed under the bridge, but she still minded very much indeed about her past,” the reporter declared during the course of an interview.

The charade became more difficult to keep. After 1965, Oberon was forced to cancel events in public and reduced her trip to Australia due to local media to be interested about her history. There are reports that she was angry when she returned in Tasmania in 1978 when questions regarding her identity remained a thorny topic.

However, she was never willing to admit the truth to the public. She died in 1979 from stroke.

The year 1983 was when her Indian-Anglo roots were revealed in her biographycalled Princess Merle A Romantic Biography of Merle Oberon. The authors discovered her birth certificate in Bombay as well as her baptismal certificate along with letters and pictures of her Indian relatives held.

Through the book, Sen hopes to be in a position to communicate the massive stress Oberon was faced with as an South Asian woman “navigating an industry that wasn’t designed to accommodate her and producing such moving work while fighting those battles”.

“Dealing with those struggles couldn’t have been easy. It feels more productive to extend grace and empathy to her than to judge.”

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