Updated: February 20, 2017 11:41:32 am
They beat up villains on top of running trains, wielded a whip and a rein with equal ease and danced with elan. With Vishal Bhardwaj’s Rangoon set to release next week, a look at Bollywood’s feisty action heroines and how they held their own in an industry being shaped by the political events of the time.
Clad in a figure-hugging short leather dress, a black fedora, knee-high boots and a Zorro-like mask which covers half her face, Jaanbaaz Miss Julia aka Kangana Ranaut, is the soul of Vishal Bhardwaj’s upcoming film Rangoon, tipped to be a Casablanca-like love triangle featuring Saif Ali Khan as a film producer and Shahid Kapoor as a soldier. As Julia, Ranaut fights baddies, rides a horse and shimmies with effortless ease. The similarities between Julia and Fearless Nadia — who burst into popular culture in the mid-’30s with Hunterwali (1935) — are uncanny.
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An unlikely heroine, Nadia, whose real name was Mary Ann Evans, came to India from Perth, Australia in 1913, at the age of five. Her Scottish father, Herbett Evans, a volunteer in the British army, was posted in Bombay. After her father’s death in World War I in 1915, she moved to Peshawar with her Greek mother. There, she learned horseriding, hunting and shooting. Once she returned to Bombay in 1928, she trained in ballet under Madame Astrova, whose troupe performed for British military bases in the country as well as for the Indian royalty. She even worked for a circus company before trying to get a break in movies. In 1934, she approached brothers JBH and Homi Wadia, founders of film production company Wadia Movietone, known to make action films. Nadia’s CV listed some very unusual skills: she could swim, ride a horse, knew a bit of ballet and was very athletic. She also enjoyed gymnastics and could do perfect splits, mentions Dorothee Wenner in her book, Fearless Nadia: The True Story of Bollywood’s Original Stunt Queen. Nadia fared miserably in her language test, but her athleticism and tall figure impressed JBH. He was a fan of American action heroines such as Pearl White and Helen Holmes, and decided to groom Nadia.
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After a few cameo appearances, which established her popularity, Nadia got her first lead role as a princess in disguise in Hunterwali. The film was a smash hit, and Nadia, as a masked crusader avenging wrongs, became an instant icon. It was during the muhurat of Hunterwali that Nadia earned the tag “Fearless”. For the muhurat shot, Nadia had to fight a bunch of baddies on a steeple roof and jump off from there. Everyone in the studio held their breath, but a nonchalant Nadia punched her detractors and leapt off the roof, making a perfect landing on a thin mattress — the only safety measure available then. An impressed Homi, her future husband, decided to add “fearless” to her name. By then, Mary Ann had already adopted the name Nadia, following a fortune-teller’s advice.
Nadia went on to establish herself as an action star with movies likes Diamond Queen (1940), where she fights for her rights; Muqabala (1942), where she appears in a double role and showcases her dancing and fencing skills; and Hunterwali Ki Beti (1943), the sequel to Hunterwali. As her popularity soared, she was projected as the lead attraction in promotional materials. Nadia would feature along with her horse, Punjab ka beta, and her Austin car, christened Rolls Royce ki beti. In the poster of Lootaru Lalna (1938), Nadia is described as “riding like a storm, fighting like a fury and loving like a woman.”
The makers of Rangoon, the story of which unfolds in the backdrop of World War II in 1944, have denied modelling the character of Julia on Nadia. Instead, they cite a host of female actors of the ’40s as inspiration. “The female actors of the time were unstoppable. They did their own stunts, wore leather shorts, picked up men and threw them off trains before breaking into a dance. Being sensual and fierce went hand in hand. My character Julia is an amalgamation of all these female actors,” says Ranaut.
So, who were these actresses who turned precedents on their head and set norms of their own?
Even though Nadia easily outshone other stunt heroines, the Indian audience had been whistling and applauding a host of them much before her arrival on screen in 1935. After her, there was Madhuri (not to be confused with Madhuri Dixit, the ’90s heartthrob), dressed in riding pants, wielding a whip and revolver in Ban ki Chidiya (1938), produced by Ranjit Movietone. Under this banner, she acted in movies such as Toofan Mail (1934), Jamin Ka Chand (1937) and Diwali (1940). Ermeline, who was in the industry since the ’20s, headlined Azad Abla (1933); earlier, she was the lead in Daupadi (1931), in which Prithviraj Kapoor had been cast as Arjun. Jammu-born Miss Gulab featured in movies like Midnight Mail (1939) and Mr X (1939). The latter’s poster shows her as a gun-toting heroine in a black suit. Romila tasted success in a double role for Wadia Movietone’s Chabukwali (1938). Though very little is known about her, she seems to have been a Jewish-Indian from Calcutta; her original name was Sophie Abraham.
The Wadia brothers, market leaders in stunt movies, had always had a soft corner for American action serials. “In fact, the character of Hunterwali was based on the famous American stunt actor Douglas Fairbanks’s Robin Hood. There is a lot of similarities between how Fairbanks and Hunterwali dress up,” says Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, Mumbai-based film archivist. From about 1910 to the early 1920s, American silent movies had actors like Helen Gibson, who could ride horses, drive cars and do high dives. Helen Holmes performed spectacular motor feats and Ruth Ronald attempted aerial stunts. In India, stunt movies never became a part of the mainstream, even at the height of its popularity in the ’30s. “Stunt films were always regarded as C-grade, meant for cheap entertainment. These movies were screened at theatres where ticket prices were low. Most of the gimmicks and stunts were copied from Hollywood, featuring Bette Davis and others. Nadia was successful because, in some ways, her films catered to the themes of good versus evil. It was also fun to watch a white woman, who was larger than an average Indian woman, beat up men, who looked smaller than her. The Wadias also slipped in nationalistic themes whenever they could. Some films, for instance, have Nadia beating up men dressed as British soldiers,” Dungarpur adds.
Most of these stunt movies by companies such as Wadia Movietone, Sharda Films, Prakash Productions, Ranjit Movietone, Ambika Films and Mohan Pictures were made on a low budget. The idea was to churn out movies as fast as possible. The shoddy production, repetitive plot and lack of innovation in stunts became the undoing of these movies. “With Independence, society underwent a change and so did the taste of the audience. Directors like Bimal Roy, Chetan Anand and Raj Kapoor emerged. The audience wanted to watch movies which talked about immediate issues such as unemployment, poverty and migration to urban centres,” says Dungarpur.
Film scholar Neepa Majumdar in her book, Wanted Cultured Ladies Only!, says that despite being “honest-to-goodness stunt films”, they were seen as “a genre of no consequence”. So, in spite of her popularity, Nadia did not achieve the stardom and acclaim that actors such as Sulochana (Ruby Myres), London-trained architect Devika Rani, who set up Bombay Talkies in 1934 with her husband Himanshu Rai, and St Xavier’s College-graduate Durga Khote commanded. That apart, action films, which minted money during the ’30s, began to slow down in the ’40s.
Interestingly, when action films were au currant, Sulochana and Khote dabbled in it too. So did Lalita Pawar, who made heads turn as a siren in Himmat-e-Marda (1935). Khote played a princess-turned-pirate Saudamini in V Shantaram’s Amar Jyoti (1936), who protests against oppression of women, while in Maya Machhindra (1932), she is a warrior queen. Both the movies were resounding successes and Amar Jyoti even travelled to the Venice Film Festival. With the ’40s, both Khote and Pawar underwent a makeover and emerged as prominent character actors. Sulochana got sidelined after her breakup with co-actor and lover D Billimoria. Sisters Gauharbai and Amirbai Karnataki, singers-actors of the ’30s and ’40s, also tried out stunts, but, eventually, settled for supporting roles.
As in politics, cinema, too, underwent a dramatic change in the ’40s. The world was in the grip of a political, social and cultural upheaval and its impact on cinema was more pronounced than ever. The American film industry responded to World War II by making propaganda movies — Casablanca (1942), featuring two of the biggest actors of that time, Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman — is one such instance. Notwithstanding the damaging war, the decade also registered remarkable advances in film technology, including sound recording, lighting, special effects, cinematography and, of course, the advent of colour.
Even though the political situation was increasingly becoming terse, India closely followed the technological advances in international cinema. Indian troops were fighting in WWII, while the independence movement had intensified back home. The aftermath of freedom was equally traumatic — Partition wreaked havoc among the people. Interestingly, amidst all of this, Indian cinema found its mojo and developed a distinct style of its own. The ’40s changed the way women would be seen in Indian cinema. “Mahatma Gandhi was greatly responsible in harnessing stree shakti for energising India’s freedom struggle. This was unprecedented across the country. And this also got reflected in cinema, such as Bombay Talkies’s Achhut Kanya (1936) or Prabhat Film Company’s Duniya Na Mane (1939) and Padosi (1941),” says film historian and theorist Amrit Gangar. Much after Kamlabai Gokhle became the first Indian woman to face the camera in Mohini Bhasmasur (1913), roles for women became more conservative. While presenting a paper on Indian cinema at a seminar in Tashkent, veteran director Sai Paranjpye spoke of how, though mythological films became less frequent in the late ’30s and ’40s, “more modernised versions of dutiful woman and wife were being told, which, to a large extent, limited the general portrayal of women in popular cinema to one-dimensional creatures with no personal ambition of their own.” A case in point is Sulochana, one of the leading ladies of the silent era. Though her earlier image was given a Western and cosmopolitan touch¸ Majumdar says, “In her talkie films (such as Indira MA), her star persona became realigned with the dominant nationalist discourse or Indian womanhood, marked by filial piety, sartorial modesty and contained sexuality.”
But, even though cinema brought fame and adulation, life in a male-dominated industry was not easy and many of the women had to battle financial problems and abusive relationships. In V Shantaram’s biography, The Man Who Changed Indian Cinema, his daughter notes the struggles of Shanta Apte, a successful actor and classical vocalist. Apte’s abusive brother had forced her to have sexual relations with him and bear his daughter. She bore the stigma openly. Gangar cites another instance of her boldness: “Apte must have been the first woman actor to have staged a hunger strike, or Gandhian satyagraha, against her producer, the reputed studio Prabhat Film Company, demanding her legitimate rights under a contract. Imagine doing this during the days when producers and the studios ruled supreme and actors had to accept their terms and conditions without any dispute. Apte was bold both in her real and reel life.”
One of the movies that created a censor storm was Kidar Sharma’s Chitralekha (1941), a tale of passion and morality. In his autobiography, The One and Lonely Kidar Sharma, the director says that when he suggested a bathing sequence in the film to his leading lady, Mehtab, a Muslim actor from Gujarat, she said: “If the story demands this scene, I see no vulgarity in it. However, I do have a condition. I will only strip if you ask everyone to clear the set. When you say the word ‘action’, I will strip and enter the marble tub and enact the scene…till I hear the word ‘cut’…but there should be no retakes.”
The end of the ’40s sounded the death knell for action films, though there was a brief spurt in the ’60s and ’80s. The decade would, however, still continue to produce woman-centric films. Mehboob Khan directed his future wife, actor Sardar Akhtar, in Aurat (which was later remade as Mother India). Though Akhtar stopped working after their marriage, the filmmaker cited her as the inspiration for his later movies Andaz (1949), Aan (1953) and Mother India (1957). With the success of Andaz and Barsaat (1949), Nargis would become the nation’s heartthrob, while Mahal (1949) made Madhubala an overnight star.
But, like in Hollywood, the studio system slowly crumbled in India after Independence. The rise of playback singers in the late ’40s also changed the notion of the female lead. While actors who were blessed with a good voice such as Kanan Devi, Suraiya and Noorjehan continued to enjoy stardom, others faced tough competition with the arrival of singers such as Geeta Dutt and Lata Mangeshkar. The latter would go on to rule the playback industry for the next five decades. The voice of the nightingale would drown out the crack of the whip and, with it, the heroine, who could hold her own among a crowd of baddies.
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