The Woman with a Whip

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The remarkable story of Fearless Nadia, one of Bollywood’s earliest female stunt stars, who has become a feminist icon

In the 1930s, just when the silent era was giving way to the talkies, there appeared on Hindi film screens a blue-eyed blonde who caused men to piss in their pants. Among the first of cinema’s audacious feminists, she challenged male dominance with such rousing lines as: “Don’t be under the assumption that you can lord over today’s women. If the nation is to be free, women have to be freed first.” This was in 1940, in a socialist-themed film titled Diamond Queen. The heroine was a 27-year-old upstart called Nadia.

Nadia leapt from windows, jumped off cliffs, swung from chandeliers, fought atop speeding trains, lived among wild lions and routinely lifted men and flung them like a wrestler. Above all, she acquired fame as a woman who cracked the whip. She did all this on her own, without any safety measures and health insurance. A messiah-like figure unfailingly coming to the rescue of the downtrodden and weak, Fearless Nadia was the female Robin Hood of her time.

Astride her pet horse, named Punjab Ka Beta for comic effect, the masked, whip-wielding Nadia was a sensation among filmgoers in the early era of Hindi cinema. A devout Catholic, born in Perth, Australia, Nadia or Mary Evans was voluptuous but athletic and “supple”, as she puts it. It is a matter of great debate how she found acceptance as a major Bollywood star in the conservative 1930s. It was a strange phenomenon, unparalleled in the history of Hindi cinema. Strange, because it involved a White woman breaking into a Brown male bastion. And strange also because it happened so early in the day, a time when the cinematic taste of British-ruled India was in infancy. Nadia was an experiment that somehow worked at a critical time in Indian cinema’s history.

“For the Indian public, Nadia was a visual disconnect from their reality. Maybe that’s why they cheered her on. I doubt if an Indian-looking woman would have been received in a similar manner,” surmises Roy Wadia, her great-nephew who was introduced to ‘Mary Aunty’s’ pictures as a young boy. And pictures, she made many.

Nadia was a creation of Wadia Movietone, a studio founded by Roy’s grandfather Jamshed Wadia that specialised in making stunt and mythological films. The studio made a fortune on the back of her swashbuckling stunts. It was quite by chance that she came into contact with the Wadias. Born of a Scottish father and Greek mother, she arrived in Mumbai, then Bombay, as a toddler. Her father, a soldier in the British army, was transferred to Bombay’s Elephanta Island in 1912. Shortly thereafter, the family occupied a small flat in Colaba. It is interesting to note that Nadia, who would endear herself to the masses as a stuntwoman, at first wanted to be a singer and dancer. At a young age, writes Dorothee Wenner in the actress’ German language biography Fearless Nadia, she ‘learned polkas and Scottish dances from her father and her first Greek songs from her mother.’ She went on to sing in church choirs in school, her real talent of swords-and-

whips still years away. In 1915, her father’s untimely death at the hands of Germans during World War I prompted the family’s move to Peshawar. It was here that Nadia developed a soft spot for animals that found expression in her movies. Even as a girl, she was different. While girls her age played with fluffy soft toys, she kept a pony who became her best friend. The family was uprooted yet again when Mary and her mother decided to return to Bombay for good, barely after a few years of stay in Peshawar.

“I was fat and the best way to lose weight was to dance,” recalled Nadia, a plumper figure by now, well past her prime as she spoke in an interview for Roy’s brother Riyad Vinci Wadia’s documentary on her, titled The Hunterwali Story. Originally screened as part of a Nadia film festival in 1993, the documentary is a comprehensive look at her life and times. Since then, Riyad, too, has passed away.

As a young woman, Mary joined a troupe of the Russian dancer Madame Astrova. She had earlier tried her hand at a job in the Army & Navy Store in Bombay as a salesgirl and had at one point wanted to learn “short-hand and typing to get a better job”. Astrova’s troupe performed for British soldiers at military bases, for Indian royalty and for other crowds in dusty small towns and villages. She mastered the art of cartwheels and splits, which came in handy later during her film stunts. With circus experience under her belt, Nadia was ready for bigger things. It is believed that Mary changed her name to Nadia on astrological advice. An Armenian fortune teller had foretold her that a successful career lay ahead but she would have to choose a name starting with the letter ‘N’. Nadia was finally chosen because it was “exotic-sounding”.

Nadia’s fortunes did rise. The Lahore cinema owner Eruch Kanga spotted her in a performance and reported this to Jamshed and Homi Wadia, the Wadia Movietone brothers. An appointment was fixed and a nervous Nadia, togged up in a blue dress and sunflower-decked hat, took a tram from Wellington Mews in Colaba to the Wadias’ original studio in Parel.

The Wadia brothers, of an elite Parsi family, were shocked by how visibly Western she was. How can a White woman even think of becoming a heroine in Hindi films? When Jamshed told her that he had never heard of her before, she shot back: “Until now, I hadn’t heard of you either!” Impressed with her attitude, they decided to put her to test. Initially, she was given walk-on parts in studio productions that were in progress at the time. Later, she was hired at a weekly salary of Rs 60. Once in the Wadia fold, she was instructed to learn Hindi.

“She always had difficulty speaking Hindi and had a very strong accent, but for some reason, the audience did not object,” says Roy. The Wadias, who were raised on a diet of American Westerns and who idolised Tom Mix, Francis Ford and Eddie Polo, started preparing to launch Nadia in a big way. And Hunterwali, the dramatic story of a princess trying to rescue her kidnapped father and salvage his empire, was considered perfect material for her launch. Inspired by Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood, it was an unconventional, even radical, subject for Indian viewers. Jamshed Wadia wanted to model Nadia on American heroines like Pearl White, Grace Cunardand Helen Holmes. A progressive intellectual who entered film production despite his family’s objection, Jamshed Wadia was the brain behind her success.

“In the film’s publicity campaign, [he] hyped her as a stunt queen. For a long time, Wadia Movietone was known only for Hunterwali,” says Roy. The film opened at Super Cinema, in Bombay’s theatre hub of Lamington Road. Thrilled at seeing a White woman don a mask and crack a whip at her father’s tormenters, the male audience was left thirsting for more. Director Homi Wadia had landed a magic formula. And Nadia became Fearless Nadia, which, as Wenner mentions, was carefully ‘built into the publicity strategy.’ Through her career, her audience remained predominantly male, the working class to whom she provided entertainment, deliverance and catharsis in equal measure.

Hunterwali was only a prelude to a remarkable career. Emboldened by its success, in film after film, Nadia took up the cause of social injustice, education, women’s emancipation, corruption, land-grabbing and exploitation. With each film, her stunts became more daring and death-defying. “Homi made her do more and more outlandish stunts. She would be told to lift men up because of her strength and she would do it, without any fuss. She would just do a little sign of a cross on her heart like any devout Catholic and jump into the scene,” says Roy.

“I will try anything once,” she used to say.

The former editor of the film periodical Screen, BK Karanjia recounts visiting the sets of one of her films (possibly Diamond Queen). “To my considerable amazement,” he is quoted as saying in The Hunterwali Story, “she did every stunt in a sort of bindaas manner. She didn’t take herself seriously. She did not take her stunts seriously. She was never afraid, always laughing, whistling and joking.”

On a number of occasions, Nadia risked her life in the line of duty. “It came with the territory,” says Roy. In Hunterwali, she had to swing from a chandelier. She did the rehearsal perfectly but fell flat on her face from a great height during the final scene. Once, she almost got swept away in the strong currents of Bhandardara Falls near Bombay.

Her films usually had recurring stock characters, doing the same sort of stuff that viewers expected of them. There was the pet horse, Punjab Ka Beta, and the old faithful Gunboat, a sprightly dog. Her jalopy bore the name (again, rather comically) Rolls Royce Ki Beti. The villain was almost always the wicked Sayani, who in Homi’s words, “acquired a following of his own, famous as he was for scratching his jaws with an evil look his eyes. His stock line, ‘Dekha jayega’ had become a catchphrase.” Typically, a Nadia film also starred John Cawas and Boman Shroff, two heavyweight bodybuilders who desperately sought acceptance as actors. There was also a ubiquitous father figure, a simpleton in dhoti, kurta and turban. How the blonde could pass off as an Indian villager’s daughter is beyond anyone’s comprehension.

“Suspension of disbelief, perhaps,” smiles Roy.

Nevertheless, there are attempts to fix this recurring implausibility. In Diamond Queen, for instance, she returns to her town after spending years in Bombay. When her stunned father asks her about her modern attire and urban outlook, she attributes it to working out rigorously in “Bombay’s gymnasiums”.

Yet, what never changed and was believable was her sterling sincerity and integrity. If on one hand she played an avenging Harijan in Hurricane Hansa, on the other she spread the message of communal harmony in Lutaru Lalna, whereas in Punjab Mail, she fought the class system.

Despite their earnest attempts, the press at the time spared no opportunity to take digs at Wadia stunt movies, nudging Jamshed Wadia to a more socially conscious form of cinema. “[He] wanted to use his films as a vehicle for his political ideology. He was inspired by the politician MN Roy and his political orientation had a profound effect on his work,” explains Roy.

The cognoscenti scoffed at stunt films because, as Roy puts it,“There wasn’t a so-called serious label on them. They were fun, simply time pass and even the actors who worked in them did not see themselves as social reformers. For them, it was merely a job that they had to perform.”

Filmmaker Shyam Benegal has earlier hailed the genre of stunt films as historically significant: “If you look at them, you suddenly realise the difference between film and theatre. Because of stunt films you started noticing the camera moving, the fast trolley, and that you could go up and down.” Karanjia, who famously commented, “Nadia is to stunts what Jane Russell is to sex,” singles out her contribution to raising the genre to an “art form”.

Among the cynics was Baburao Patel, the acid-tongued editor of Filmindia. He launched one scathing attack after another on her films. Nadia was never thought of as a serious actor by either the press or her peers. In fact, Patel questioned the very wisdom of making her a Hindi film heroine when she was not even fluent in the language. To him, she was there simply to provide cheap thrills. “She wasn’t Nargis or Meena Kumari,” admits Roy. “But very respectfully, I would like to point out that Nadia was a precursor of Mother India. What Nargis portrayed was through a lot of suffering, sacrifice, tears and agony. Nadia fought for the right to be an equal of men, and to not let society dictate what a woman should do and what she shouldn’t. She was a champion of truth and justice.”

A link has been drawn between Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man characters who rebelled against the system post-Emergency with Nadia’s angst. “The angry young man phenomenon probably wouldn’t have happened if Nadia wasn’t there as an example before the writers Salim-Javed,” says Roy, adding, “Amitabh, of course, took it to a very different level. He was an intense character in many of his films, very often negative.” Like Nadia, there is a desire for vengeance that drives him. “He’s not afraid to the take the law into his own hands and actually kills people to get justice. He often himself dies in the end. Nadia, on the other hand, didn’t take it that far. She fought but she never killed anyone because she would always let the system take its course in the end. She herself didn’t deliver the final blow.”

In private life, she was as charming as she was aggressive on screen. Mahesh Bhatt, whose father Nanabhai Bhatt directed her in Muqabala (1942), a cult film in which the formula of twin sisters separated-at-birth was first explored, dubs her a reincarnation of Durga, a Hindu goddess. “Indian mythology has the attribute of feminine dominance. A woman can be gentle, compassionate and all-giving but she can also take up cudgels when need be. Nadia symbolised both these faces of the female mystique.”

She led a happy life save a rough patch when she took to drinking. She was in love with Homi, her director, and wanted to marry him. But his mother, a staunch Parsi, disapproved of the match. “She was hurt by the family’s disapproval. She wasn’t a Parsi and had to go through a lot of heartache,” says Roy. In 1959, she quit acting, only to return in the 1960s in what was to be her last bow. She finally married Homi after his mother’s death when she was in her early fifties.

In the last years of her life, she used to be spotted walking her dogs in the bylanes of Colaba. She usually wore shorts on these walks, scandalising onlookers. ‘Nadia and her mother were well known in the neighbourhood as an eccentric pair,’ writes Wenner.

In these politically turbulent times, Roy feels the country needs real-life Nadias. If there was a Nadia today, she would certainly be fighting politicians, corruption, illegal mining, property developers and other relevant issues.

“It’s a bit of a stretch,” he says,“but at a time when we are buffeted by corruption and scandals and there is so much angst against the system, someone like Nadia would just cut through the crap.”