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The Fearless One

Friday, February 24, 2017
By Deepa Gahlot

This week’s release, Vishal Bharadwaj’s Rangoon, has a character called Julia (played by Kangana Ranaut), an action film star of the 1940s. It is obvious that she is based on stunt queen 'Fearless Nadia', real name Mary Ann Evans, born in Perth, Western Australia. She came to India in 1913 as a child, and among other odd jobs, worked in a circus before landing up on the Wadia Movietone sets and being renamed, Nadia.

Fearless Nadia should be a bigger cult figure in India than she is. Her place in Indian cinema is unique and nobody has been able to replace her in over 80 years. Women in Indian cinema went from being simpering idiots to sex objects totally bypassing the fighter.

Blonde and blue-eyed she was a dancer and an expert rider which helped the Wadia brothers JBH and Homi (who went on to marry her) to create the Fearless Nadia or Hunterwali persona, doing action films like 'Miss Frontier Mail', 'Hurricane Hansa', 'Lutaru Lalna' and 'Toofan Mail'. The films that can be found are great fun to watch, and the ‘fearless’ characters she played, much ahead of her time.

Trained in riding and shooting, Nadia was working the circus when JBH Wadia discovered her and cast her in his stunt films. She rode like a storm, swung a sword, cracked whips, fought villains atop running trains, dressed in shorts, hat, and mask (as Hunterwali) and was India's only female swashbuckler. Because she was a foreigner and could not speak Hindi too well, Nadia's career did not carry over into the talkie period, but it was wonderful watching her on screen, even by today’s supposedly bold standards she was revolutionary. And it didn’t matter who her leading man was, audiences went to the cinema to see her.

After Nadia, no female star in Hindi cinema commanded that kind of fan-following. Leading ladies today are just accessories for the hero, and even when they do get to do a bit of action once a while— they take a great deal of time in training and getting into shape—it is clear that they are not the centre of the story and are almost always replaceable/interchangeable.

Things are changing for the better now, however, it’s good for every new generation of moviegoers to discover Fearless Nadia and imagine what the place of the woman in Indian cinema might have been if there had been more like her. Kangana Ranaut, who portrays herself as bold and brave, would make for a good Julia/Nadia.

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