It was the year 1934. A blonde woman would turn conventions on their head to capture the imagination of people, wielding whips and doing acrobatic stunts, all by herself. Known by her screen name, Fearless Nadia, she would soon go on to acquire the title of Hunterwali, and became the moniker for strong Indian women for several years to come. Now, paying a tribute to this daring actress, Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum has organised a special screening of one of her iconic films, Diamond Queen, today at the museum.
Pics Courtesy/Wadia MOvietone
Born as Mary Ann Evans, Nadia came to India as a child from Australia, when her father was stationed with the British Indian army in Mumbai (then Bombay), informs her great-nephew, Roy Wadia.
After her father was killed in the First World War, Mary and her mother, Margaret, moved to the then Northwest Frontier Province where the young girl learnt horse riding, gymnastics and other sports.
Pics Courtesy/Wadia MOvietone
Later, after returning to Bombay, and bored with her job at the Army and Navy Stores, Mary applied to Wadia Movietone for an acting job upon the recommendation of a theatre owner who knew its founder Jamshed Wadia, Roy Wadia’s grandfather.
She chose her stage/screen name, Nadia.
Wadia informs that Jamshed was initially incredulous but gave her a cameo as a slave girl in the film, Desh Deepak. The audience loved her, so Jamshed gave her a supporting role in another Arabian Nights-style fantasy movie, before casting her as the lead in Hunterwali (The Lady of the Whip) in 1935. In Hunterwali, her character wore a leather vest, hot pants, a mask and a cap with a feather, and cracked a mean whip, bashing up villains, upholding justice and human rights. She performed all stunts on her own, like swinging from chandeliers, jumping from high floors without a safety net, and riding a horse bareback.
A Poster of the film, Diamond Queen, released in 1940
The success of Hunterwali catapulted Nadia to superstardom. Nadia’s story, says Wadia, is one of the most unlikely in all of cinema history, globally. “Her movie characters personified freedom, equality, and ironically, presented a picture of what the new Indian woman should aspire to be in a soon to be independent India. The audience was supposed to suspend disbelief and accept Nadia as an Indian woman, (though blonde and blue-eyed), playing characters with names like Rani and Madhuri and that’s what they did,” he explains.
In a way, he adds, “She was the precursor by several decades to the angry young man persona depicted by the young Amitabh Bachchan of Zanjeer or Deewar, but there was always a happy, optimistic face to her characters, not a brooding, angry or explosive one.”
She carried the same optimism in real life as well. Wadia recalls, “My most cherished memories are those at home and at the studios, where I watched many a film being made in the 1960s, including Nadia’s last stunt movie, Khiladi, where she came out of retirement for a final fling. Mary aunty was a generous, warm woman, truly loving and giving, hosting legendary Christmas parties at her Juhu shack and family get-togethers at her Colaba apartment.”
But the feisty woman onscreen had a lighter side too. “She had a wicked sense of humour, occasionally quite bawdy, and would laugh uproariously at her own jokes. And yes, she loved her whisky too. But underneath all t
at was someone who was quite religious as well, with a strong Catholic faith. But she was never judgmental of others,”
Roy laments that he only has a handful of her memorabilia, but informs that plenty of it is available in various private collections. “There is a Wadia Movietone archive at the National Film Archive of India in Pune, containing some 20 films, including a number of Nadia films. There’s a lot more information, if anyone’s interested, on the website www.wadiamovietone.com.”
Wadia informs that there’s also a documentary by his late brother, Riyad Wadia, titled Fearless: The Hunterwali Story (1993), which resurrected the Nadia legend.
On: Today, 6 pm to 9 pm
At: Bhau Daji Lad Museum, 91 A, Veer Mata Jijabai Bhonsle Udyan, Dr Baba Saheb Ambedkar Marg, Byculla (E).
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