SACF South Asian Cinema in UK


Merle Oberon

Merle Oberon19th February 1911 – 23rd November 1979

Baptised Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson, she was born in Mumbai to Arthur Thompson O'Brien, a railway engineer of Irish origin and Charlotte, a Eurasian who moved from Sri Lanka to Mumbai in the first decade of the 20th century. According to some, Charlotte was not Merle’s mother, but her grandmother. Charlotte raised Merle first in Mumbai and then in Calcutta. After leaving formal education at a young age, Merle mastered ballet and other forms of western dancing and also acted in plays in Calcutta. She also frequented fashionable joints like Firpos where she met well-connected people, including foreign film stars. Fired by the ambition to become a film actress in the west, she and Charlotte left for London in 1928.

After an initial struggle In London where she got played uncredited 'bits' in British films from the late 1920s, Merle was finally discovered by Hungarian-British film producer and director Alexander Korda whom she married in 1941. Her first significant film break was in Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Korda also projected Merle in The Private Life of Don Juan (1934) and The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934). She later starred opposite big stars in successful films like The Divorce of Lady X (1938) and Over the Moon (1939).

Merle finally left Britain and settled in America where she acted in over 50 films and worked under many prestigious directors. She also starred with some of the most famous male stars of her times such as Charles Laughton, Douglas Fairbanks Senior, Leslie Howard, Laurence Olivier, David Niven, George Sanders, Marlon Brando and Fredric March. She received her only Academy Award for Best Actress nomination for The Dark Angel (1935). However, her most critically acclaimed performance was opposite Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939), a film adaptation by William Wyler of Emily Bronte's novel of the same name.

Merle had a complex relationship with her dual heritage. Convinced that her mixed Anglo-Indian origin would make her an object of disdain or derision and ruin her film career, she claimed to be a ‘Tasmanian’. She went to the extent of hiding her real relationship with Charlotte and introduced her to those she happened to meet, as her maid. Though not completely unknown to those within the film industry, her Indian roots remained hidden from the general public throughout her life and were revealed only in the early 1980s. Thereafter, she has been the subject of considerable interest, research and films. She married four times but had no children of her own. She adopted two children on whom she lavished great care and love. She died of a stroke in November 1979.

Merle in 'The Divorce of Lady X' Merle Oberon and Leslie Howard in 'The Scarlet Pimpernel' Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn in 'The Private Life of Henry VIII Merle Oberon with Alexendar Korda Merle Oberon with Leslie Howard in 'The Scarlet Pimpernel'


The above findings are part of the research which ensued in the project - A Hidden Heritage: Indo-British Film Collaboration (1930-1951)