Who was the first Indian actress to act in an American Film?

Who was the first Indian actress to act in an American Film? No, she was not Persis Khambatta or Aishwarya Rai Bachchan or Freida Pinto. Nah, Merle Oberon or Anna Kashfi (Marlon Brando’s wife) were technically India-born British actresses! Then, who was she?

My search took me to an old newspaper report from India News Bulletin (Issued by the Embassy of India in Washington, Dated January 11, 1950) and I found an unexpected answer. She was Radha Sri Ram, who played an important role in well-known director Jean Renoir’s classical film The River in 1948.

Radha Sri Ram was not some unknown entity, rather a revered one in India. She was the president of the Theosophical Society from 1980 until her death in 2013. But her brief contribution to cinema, had been forgotten.

Early in 1951, Radha Sri Ram married Raymond Burnier, a Swiss photographer, and became Radha Burnier. Raymond had come to India in 1932 to photograph temple art, and met young Radha at BHU in Benares. It seems like Raymond Burnier played a great role in introducing her to cinema and that’s how Jean Renoir discovered her for his film, The River.

“Mrs. Burnier played a major role in the well-known director Jean Renoir’s classical film The River (Le Fleuve), based on Rumer Godden’s novel. The film was made in only five months, and was released in 1951. The producer, Kenneth McEldowney, made four trips to India in a year and a half, trying to cast the role of Melanie, because most Indian women were not permitted by their families to perform in a film, especially in a role that involved a kiss.”

“When he met Radha, he was skeptical until he saw her dance. He said – She was magnificent. She is like a goddess.”

His wife Melvina wrote, “I never knew a goddess could have such a delightful sense of humor, such honest intelligence, such understanding of people and still be so young.” Her family’s broad-minded view of culture permitted Radha to accept the film role.

Shortly after her marriage, the Burniers travelled to Beverly Hills, and then to New York with the Renoirs.

The film was well received and was influential to several Indian and American filmmakers.

During this time she met some famous people such as Charles Chaplin, with whom she shared a meal. Rahdaji was offered to participate in movies produced by Hollywood but declined the offer.”


Jean Renoir once remarked about her – “Outside of beauty or talent there are unknown reasons which make a man or a woman fit with the camera; I call them “screen animals” and I more and more believe that Radha is a screen animal.”

Unfortunately, Sri Radha’s marriage did not last and her screen career ended as well. Soon, she got involved in many cultural, educational, and spiritual activities and organizations and emerged as a leader in those fields as well.

Well, I have always loved unearthing and researching old newspaper reports to know about old forgotten entities and their stories. And the latest venture has been well worth the effort. I am sure this research will help in setting the records straight about the first Indian actress in the US.

(Images courtesy Google)

16 thoughts on “Who was the first Indian actress to act in an American Film?

    1. True Sir, Zubeida worked in films with Indian themes and Merle Oberon was India-born British actress. We need to have an army of fact checkers on Google to set the records straight 😀.


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