If reports are to be believed, Kangana Ranaut’s character “Jaanbaaz Miss Julia” in Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon heavily borrows from the persona of Fearless Nadia — the swashbuckling stuntwoman-actress of Bombay cinema of the 30s and early 40s. Nadia, who did all of her stunts by herself, fought on moving trains, threw herself into raging waterfalls, socialised with the lions and jumped from horseback onto ladders dangling from airplanes. “I’ll try anything once,” she famously said. But until the recent years, this her luminous legacy in Indian cinema largely lay buried and forgotten.
Born Mary Ann Evans, in Perth, Australia in 1908 to a British soldier father and Greek mother, she moved to Bombay in 1913 when her father got stationed there. Athletically inclined Evans was a natural performer, who by her mid twenties had trained herself in horse riding, gymnastics, tennis, tap dance and ballet, after which she went off to join a circus and traveled through the country. She also adopted a pseudonym — from Mary to the more exotic-sounding Nadia.
It is around this time that she caught the eye of filmmaker Jamshed Boman Homi Wadia, better known as JBH, who was impressed by her physical strength and capabilities.
She was cast in a small role of a slave girl in his film Desh Deepak in 1933, which earned her great acclaim. Soon after, she got her own movie.
Hunterwali (1935), Nadia’s first full film, was a great gamble of JBH and his younger brother Homi Wadia (together founders of Wadia Movietone). Not only had the production of Hunterwali taken six months and costed Rs 80,000 — a huge budget for a local film at the time — but also a risky and unproven “stunt” formula made it hard for the Wadias to find distributors. They ended up taking up that role themselves and it paid off in a fortune. The 164-minute epic about a daring princess, Madhuri (played by Nadia), who secretly fought injustice and treason in her father’s kingdom with the crack of a whip as a masked vigilante, was a total smash hit — one of the biggest of the decade. Alongside the princess was her loyal horse “Punjab ka beta”, dog “Gunboat” and even a car named “Rolls Royce ki beti” — who would show up in her later films too.
The audience were supposed to suspend their disbelief and believe that the white woman was an Indian heroine, which they readily did, and reveled in her stunts. The sight of a white woman thrashing Indian men in the movies at the height of the Indian freedom struggle could have been a very bad idea. But the Wadia brothers undertook the Indianising of Nadia with a meticulously screenplay. Robinhood-like Nadia got emphatically coded over time as the the protector of the poor and the punisher of the evil doers.
To her audience, she was white and not white at the same time. On one hand she carried the exoticism of the “white mem” on screen and was billed as India’s equivalent of Hollywood stuntwoman Pearl White. On the other hand, her persona also drew upon the virangana tradition of legendary Indian warrior women like Razia Sultan and Queen of Jhansi, Laxmibai. Between 1910 and 1940, when overt nationalist references in films was censored by the British government, legendary viranganas like Laxmibai and Durgawati were reimagined as figures of resistance. Like these female warrior women, Nadia’s characters actively deployed the body in combat, while championing the oppressed — “a virangna of the modern world” created by the Wadias, as film scholar Rosie Thomas would put it. This heroism and support of the underdog were read as anti-British allegories by her audience members, in spite of the fact that she was a buxom, blue-eyed, blonde woman — sometimes towering above her Indian co-actors.
According to those met her, like Bollywood film writer B.K. Karanjia , she brought a gung ho attitude and a wicked humor, that one associates with Australians, to her stunt work. Her Hindi was limited and accented, but her strength lay in her strong body — Nadia’s stunts got riskier with the progression of her career. She was capable of picking up men and throwing them. “Homi realised her language was her ‘body’,” film theorist and curator Amrit Gangar told Hindustan Times. “He kept Nadia’s dialogue to a bare minimum because of her difficulty with Hindi.” That superheroic action is indeed what came to legitimise Nadia’s identity.
The plot of many early movies was just an excuse for stunt performance, but pretty soon Nadia also became a somewhat political figure — becoming a voice for marxist and humanist social messages of JBH. For instance, in her blockbuster movie, Diamond Queen (1940), she not only beat up the evil owners of a diamond mine running on child labor but also delivered a lecture on women’s rights and education being the path to freedom — the same kind of things that we talk about today.
“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”, Roy Wadia, great nephew of Mary Ann Evans and grandson on JBH, told australiaunlimited.com.
To the movie-watching schoolkids of the 1940s, Nadia regally straddling her horse with her signature clarion call of “Hey-y-y” represented courage, fearlessness and idealism. “She was a feminist when the word wasn’t popular. She was always ahead of her time. She didn’t fit any social movement or cultural wave. She was her own one-woman tour de force,” adds Wadia. Evans was a hybrid in real life too — a white woman who grew up in India and absorbed its cultural ethos. The fluidity of her race and her grace possibly made her acceptable and even celebrated by the masses — she could portray a femininity that lay at odds with many aspects of contemporary Indian womanhood like wearing risque costumes and even pulling off a nude bathing scene in Hunterwali.
“Nadia, in her heydey, was the queen of box office. It was however Devika Rani who became the ‘first lady’ of Indian cinema, celebrated by the critics and feted throughout Europe,” writes Thomas. Despite her once immense popularity with the masses in India and diasporic communities, Nadia remained virtually unknown in Europe or America and had been largely erased from official Indian cinema history for several decades. There is however some renewed interest in her and the early stunt movies in the last few years over talks of a bio-pic.
Her career lasted through the forties and fifties, with a final performance in Khiladi in 1968 — after which she retired from films. Evans and Homi Wadia, who directed her in many of her films, had fallen in love in the 1940s, but married only in 1961 — after the passing of his conservative mother who disapproved of Evans. She died at the ripe age of 88 in Mumbai in 1996 — eight years before the passing of her husband.
Fearless Nadia represented a profound shift from the way women were portrayed in Indian cinema, usually as vamps, virgins or victims, and became what no woman had ever been before — the hero. Her legacy, as an early action hero who avenged wrongs, was also not limited to women. “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,” said Roy Wadia.
Rangoon has reportedly run into legal trouble over copyright issues with Wadia Movietone for stealthily appropriating Fearless Nadia’s persona. Given Nadia’s larger than life persona and legacy, though, it would be hard not to think of her any time a mask-donning lady in Bollywood decides to crack a whip on the baddies.