Merle Oberon, a Hollywood star of the black and white era, is a forgotten icon in India, the country of her birth.
Best-known for playing the lead in the classic Wuthering Heights, Oberon was an Anglo-Indian born in Bombay in 1911. But as a star in Hollywood’s Golden Age, she kept her background a secret – passing herself off as white – throughout her life.
Mayukh Sen, a US-based writer and academic, first stumbled across her name in 2009 when he found out that Oberon was the first actor of South Asian origin to be nominated for an Oscar.
His fascination grew as he saw her films and dug deeper into her past. “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,” he says. Sen is now working on a biography to tell Oberon’s story from a South Asian perspective.
She was born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson in Bombay (now Mumbai) in 1911. Her mother was part-Sinhalese and part-Maori while her father was British.
The family moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1917 after Oberon’s father died in 1914. She got her start in acting through the Calcutta Amateur Theatrical Society in the 1920.
In 1925, after watching her first film, a silent movie, The Dark Angel, Oberon was inspired by its star, Vilma Bánky, to become an actress, according to Sen. She left for France in 1928 after an army colonel introduced her to director Rex Ingram who gave her bit parts in his films.
Oberon’s mother Charlotte Selby, who had darker skin, followed her as her maid.