India may have forgotten Mary Ann Evans, but the world is heaping praises on her. As Australia, her birth country, pays a tribute to India’s original stunt queen, Saadia S Dhailey ruminates on the life and times of Fearless Nadia
TIMES NEWS NETWORK
FEARLESS Nadia, aka Mary Ann Evans, burst onto the screen in the 1930s, juggling whips, swords, guns, and sometimes even landing mean punches with her bare hands, to set the villains straight. In this blonde, blueeyed ballet dancer, filmmaker JBH Wadia found his feminist icon, who could carry a social and political message at a time when Indian actresses played dainty damsels in distress, waiting to be rescued by their knights in shining armour.
From her first film, Hunterwali (The Princess and the Hunter) in 1935, Evans was a huge hit and went on to redefine the image of a woman on screen. She changed her name to Nadia after being advised by a fortuneteller and her nom de plume ‘Fearless Nadia’ was acquired from her days as a circus acrobat. To the pre-Independence era audience, Fearless Nadia was the first of her kind.
She would single-handedly fight a gang of men, jump from one moving vehicle to another, hang from chandeliers, and spout dialogues like no woman ever had till then, anywhere in the world. Author and documentary filmmaker Nasreen Munni Kabir watched Diamond Queen sometime in the late 1970s, and she will always remember Nadia’s famous dialogue that still rings true: “If India is to be free, women must be given their freedom. If you try and stop them, you’ll face the consequences”. Says Kabir, “In the early days of Indian cinema, our stunt films copied the Hollywood films of Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford. But it was Nadia who made this borrowed genre uniquely Indian by her very presence and unique stunts. Fearless Nadia represented a significant model. She played an original character at a time when the role of women in society was largely conservative and repressive. The
audience knew that she was not Indian, and perhaps the fact that a Westerner was fighting on our side was doubly appealing to them.”
A blonde, blue-eyed girl with Indian character names — Mala (Jungle Ka Jawahar), Savita (Miss Frontier Mail), Madhurika (Diamond Queen) — championing the common man’s causes and fighting for women’s rights was unheard of and unseen before.
Nadia went on to star in about 50 films, (some sources say 60), but as she mainly performed in the stunt genre, unfortunately, she was seen as less of a thespian, largely ignored by Indian cinema historians. That, however, changed in 1993, three years before her death, when Wadia’s grandson, the late Riyad Vinci Wadia, introduced her to the world through a documentary on her life called Fearless: The Hunterwali Story. Screened at various international film festivals, it brought her to the attention of the world, including Australia, where she was born as Mary Ann Evans. Riyad’s brother Roy Wadia, director, Wadia Movietone, tells us, “The documentary generated a lot of interest. When Australians realised the connection Mary had with them, she became very special.”
The ongoing Oz Fest in India has a segment dedicated to her. Australian composer Ben Walsh, who has been providing the music score in an unique live-orchestra format, as one of Nadia’s most famous films Diamond Queen is screened all over India, says, “Why India? I don’t think she still has parallels in the rest of the world.”
Australian journalist Michelle Smith after watching Nadia’s work recently, described her unique style as “a 1930s-esque innocence, juxtaposed with incredible stunts and spiels about women’s rights”. As a gift to India, the Australian High Commission has also undertaken the task to restore the print of this film. “It’s the most mature Nadia film of its kind and really elevated the stunt genre to story-telling,” Roy tells us. Filmmaker Shyam Benegal credits Nadia for giving Indian cinema its first angry young ‘man’. He explains, “She stood for the good and the right in society, which is what Amitabh Bachchan did as an actor in the late 1970s, and became a champion of the common man. Without Fearless Nadia, there would be no Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man.”
Roy, who had the good fortune of knowing her (Mary was married to JBH Wadia’s brother Homi Wadia), says fondly, “She was the only grownup in my family who cracked adult jokes. One among the boys, she loved whisky and had no airs. Mary aunty didn’t buy into her legends and myths!”
Veteran film journalist Rauf Ahmed says, “In those days, Fearless Nadia did stunts that even men didn’t attempt.” Nadia’s grandnephew, Bollywood choreographer, Shiamak Davar, reveals how Nadia’s onscreen persona even charmed Angelina Jolie, who told Shah Rukh Khan once, she would love to play Fearless Nadia if her life is ever captured on celluloid.
With a renewed interest in the life, times and art of Nadia, a film on her, played by one of the most recognizable faces in the world, may not seem like a pipe dream anymore. But Davar still rues the lack of interest in her by the Indian film fraternity. “They pay tributes to everybody, but they have forgotten Mary mai.”
— SHYAM BENEGAL, DIRECTOR
Mary Ann Evans, aka Fearless Nadia, was born in Perth, Australia, and came to Bombay in 1913, when she was five. She lived in Colaba with her father Herbert Evans, a Scotsman in the British army, and mother Margaret. After her father’s death in World War I, Evan’s mother took her to Peshawar. There, Mary learned how to hunt, fish, shoot. In 1928, she returned to Bombay with her mother and a son, Robert Jones, about whom not much is known. Nadia decided to learn ballet and recognizing her star quality, her dance teacher invited her to join her troupe that would travel all over India. And not much later, Indian cinema got its first feminist icon. After her glorious stint in films, in 1959, Nadia married Homi Wadia after a long-standing relationship. She then took a sabbatical to enjoy her domestic life and took to breeding race horses.
- The Woman with a Whip (Open magazine on Fearless Nadia) (satyamshot.wordpress.com)
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