Life | Lethally Blonde

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Lethally Blonde
Text by Madhu Jain
Published: Volume 16, Issue 12, December, 2008

They didn’t call her Fearless Nadia for nothing. Cracking whips, swinging from chandeliers, chasing baddies from atop moving trains, the whirlwind blonde who literally kick-started the trend of Bollywood action films with the iconic Nadia series in the early 30s, was a legend in more ways than one. Madhu Jain revisits the adrenaline-packed saga of India’s original stunt queen

She did not zoom into the sky with the speed of a rocket. Bullets did not ricochet off her bounteous chest. Nor did she wear her underwear on the outside like Superman, the flying, caped crusader. Yet, Fearless Nadia was Indian cinema’s first superwoman. Cracking a whip, brandishing a sword, racing along the top of moving trains in pursuit of the baddies, swinging from chandeliers, beating up men by the dozen, this rather robust blonde with startling blue eyes was a swashbuckling saviour of the exploited. Step aside Wonder Woman and Xena the Warrior: we have our own angrez-desi who with her clarion call of ‘Hey-y-y-y’ came to rescue of the poor, the vanquished and damsels in distress. Nadia was also India’s first feminist icon of the screen.

Bollywood’s original stunt queen acted in over 50 films for Wadia Movietone, the path-breaking studio founded three quarters of a century ago in 1933 by JBH Wadia and his brother Homi Wadia in Dadar, Mumbai. Descendants of the pioneering shipbuilding Parsi family of the Wadias, the two brothers had a ship as a logo for their studio. The studio that rolled out films of all genres—ranging from mythologicals to social dramas and swashbuckling adventure films—also had many firsts to its credit. This studio was, in 1958, the first to use the camera crane. Interestingly, the crane was built in their own workshop. Wadia Movietone also produced the first Indian talkie that had an English version: Court Dancer. Filmed simultaneously in English, Hindi and directed by Madhur Bose in 1941, the film (starring Prithvi Raj Kapoor and classical dancer Sadhana Bose) was distributed in the United States. The studio also published The Indian Screen Gazette.

Nadia was all but forgotten for several generations after her last film Khiladi (1968) until her grandnephew, the late Riyad Wadia, made the riveting documentary on her. Fearless: The Hunterwali Story rekindled an interest in the actress when it was shown in festivals in 1993, followed by Dorothee Wenner’s fascinating biography: Fearless Nadia. The true story of Bollywood’s original stunt queen.

It’s time, once again, to re-evaluate the incredible phenomenon that was Nadia, as well as the Wadia brothers who combined the genre of stunt films and populist nationalism to great effect in a stream of films. Jamshed Wadia – originally a member of the Indian National Congress before he came under the influence of Bengal reformer and Marxist, MN Roy — introduced anti-British allegorical references as well a subtext about women’s emancipation. Homi Wadia, who directed most of the Nadia films, eventually married his action-heroine.

This year also marks the birth centenary of Nadia, the daughter of Herbert Evans, a Scotsman, who was in the British army during the First World War in the North-West Frontier, and Margaret, an eccentric, fun-loving Greek belly dancer. An Armenian tarot-card reader advised the young Mary to change her name if she wanted to be rich and famous. The Armenian lady could not have been more right. Nadia soon achieved cult status. So entrenched was her image as the defender of the exploited that Fearless Nadia belts, whips, playing cards and match-boxes flooded the markets.

Nadia’s debuting role in Hindi films in Lal-e-Yaman in 1933 was not much more than a walk-on part. Nor did Desh Deepak/Noor-e-Yaman, made the following year, make her star. However, after Hunterwali – directed in 1935 by Homi Wadia — there was no looking back. The sobriquet of Hunterwali attached itself to the actress who became one of India’s top stars of the 30s and 40s. In this iconic film, after which she was called India’s Pearl White, Nadia wore tightly fitting and revealing clothes and boots and flagellating the air with a leather whip.

Whips, capes, masks, fur hats, tall boots, and shorts became the accoutrements of this actress who played the female avatars of Robin Hood, Zorro or even Tarzan. Lady Robin Hood was the title of one of her films. Many of Nadia’s films involve trains: Miss Frontier Mail, Punjab Mail, Diamond Queen and Toofan Queen.

Although Nadia’s films included jungle escapades, fantasy fare and Hollywood gangster films, the Wadia brothers astutely grafted the Nadia persona onto indigenous action heroines of the past: Jhansi ki Rani and Razia Sultan who stood up for their rights and were no strangers to swords.

The studio no longer exists. Nor do most of the people who were associated with it — or with Fearless Nadia. However, Nadia’s other grandnephew, Canada-based Roy Wadia, has returned to India to revive the legacy. The family has a treasure trove of posters (many of them surreal), lobby cards, diaries, correspondence and books.

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