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‘Whips, quips, swinging hips’

Friday, November 23, 2012
Deepa Gahlot

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 later. Women in Indian cinema went from being simpering idiots to sex objects totally bypassing the fighter.

It takes the Oz Fest in India to remind us once more of her legacy. Why are the Australians paying tribute to an Indian cinema legend? Because, the “whips, quips, swinging hips” (according to Roy Wadia, JBH Wadia’s grandson) stunt queen was born Mary Ann Evans 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.

Blonde and blue-eyed she was a dancer and expert rider which helped the Wadia brothers JBH and Homi (who went on to marry her) to create the Fearless Nadia or Hunterwali persona.

Earlier this week, as part of the Oz Fest was a lovely evening — a screening of a Nadia Wadia classic Diamond Queen together with highlights from her other silent movies, accompanied by a new and original score by Ben Walsh, performed live by the Orkestra of the Underground along with tabla maestro Aneesh Pradhan and his musicians.

The films are great fun, even without the music. 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 only female swashbuckler. Because she was a foreigner and could not speak Hindi too well, her career did not carry over too well 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 leasing man was, audiences went to the cinema to see her.

After her, 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 —and they a great deal of time in training and getting into shape — it is clear that they are not the centre of the story and the are almost always replaceable/ interchangeable.

So 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 has been more like her.

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