Dev Patel’s nomination for Best Actor In A Supporting Role was big news in India, since he became only the third actor of Indian-origin to have been granted access to an exclusive club of white folk on the west coast of America. Before him was obviously the great actor Ben Kingsley, whose lineage came out of Gujarat. However, it is important to note the first actor of Indian-origin to break the status quo was a woman named Merle Oberon in the ’30s.
What is even more fascinating is her story of how she had to hide her identity for the entirety of her movie-star career. Being born in Mumbai as Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson in 1911, she was raised by her grandmother Charlotte for the most part. When she moved to England in 1928, she was spotted by Hungarian filmmaker Alexander Korda, who also offered her first film The Private Life of Henry VIII where she was credited as Merle Oberon.
She married Korda and went on to star in a bunch of movies including 1935’s The Dark Angel which got her the first nomination for Best Actress. Oberon refused to appear in front of the camera without makeup, which can now be understood as an effort to hide her dusky complexion. Hollywood at that time, wouldn’t allow an actor of ‘mixed race’ to continue working. Therefore a lie was invented about her place of birth being Tasmania, where her father was killed in a ‘hunting accident’.
The studio, Korda and Oberon herself would purport this life story and no one would question it. Oberon had a near-fatal accident in 1937 where most deemed her career over, however, she came back a year later with Wuthering Heights for which she received a lot of acclaim. The actor was last seen 1973’s Interval. She kept up the pretense all her life until a year before her eventual death in 1979 by a stroke.
Even almost four decades after her demise, Oberon’s story remains one of the most fascinating stories from the glitzy world of showbiz. It’s only heartening that the Patels and the Chopras aren’t seen in the same light as a Merle Oberon. The times they are a changin’.