Reel Review: Fearless Nadia - Shohini Ghosh

Sohini Ghosh

Early last year, I participated in the launch of a biography of India’s legendary stunt actress Mary Evans Wadia (popularly called Nadia) – a woman whose legacy excites and inspires me both personally and professionally. 

I never saw the films of Fearless Nadia when I was growing up but I heard about her from my mother who would describe her exploits as I romped around as a child with all manner of make-belief weapons. It was much later, and only through the documentary Fearless: The Hunterwali Story  that I actually saw clips from Nadia’s films. But even before I had seen her in films, I gathered from my mother’s Nadia stories, that being a woman may not be all about walking the beaten track.

Fearless Nadia’s films are illustrative of the somewhat neglected genre of stunt films (which for long were frowned upon by the devotees of ‘high-art’) and the studio system of the 1930’s and 40’s. Today, action films (we do not call them stunt films any more) are usually associated with male heroes. But in India, the stunt film reached the height of its success with the films of Fearless Nadia, a horse-riding, swashbuckling action heroine who did all her stunts herself. (She would carry villains on her shoulders and jump from roof to roof on top of moving trains, fight ferocious lions in cages, float down swift rapids and a host of other dangerous stunts.) In a career spanning three decades, she acted in immensely popular films like Hunterwali(1935), Miss Frontier Mail (1936), Hurricane Hunsa (1937) and Diamond Queen (1940). With very rare exceptions, Nadia executed all her stunts herself very often, at great risk to her life.

While Nadia’s career technically spanned from Hunterwali in 1935 to Khiladi in 1968, she was at the peak of her success in the films of the 30’s and 40’s. This period also happens to be one of the most exciting periods in the history of early cinema. During this time, all the major studios are established (including Bombay Talkies, Calcutta New Theatres, Prabhat Studios and of course Wadia Movietone). Playback singing becomes established as a standard convention and the leading film monthly Film India is launched. During the decade of the 30’s significant films are made including A Throw of Dice, Devdas and Achhut Kanya by Franz Ozten, Sant Tukaram by Fatehlal and Damle and the proto-feminist film Duniya Na Maane by V. Shantaram.

The Forties are equally eventful as major production houses and studios continue to be launched that includes Filmistan to Navketan Productions.  The Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA) produces films likeDharti Ke Lal and Neecha Nagar. Other films include V. Shantaram’s Dr Kotnis Ki Amar Kahani and the spectacular Kalpana by the extraordinary dancer Uday Shankar. In Calcutta, Satyajit Ray and Chidananda Das Gupta start the first film society in India. All these major cinematic signposts are marked against a rush of important political developments including India’s independence in 1947. The Fearless Nadia films produced first by Wadia Movietone and then by Basant Pictures add a rich and inventive layer to this period of cinema history. I will suggest that this was also because by moving away from certain established traditions of realism, stunt films were creating a new cinematic reality. More than the Lumiere Brothers they were following the footsteps of Melies by creating magic and fantasy on the screen. (In the documentary, Fearless, Shyam Benegal remarks that stunt films created a definitive break between cinema and proscenium theatre.)

The Nadia phenomenon is particularly fascinating because it breaks the dichotomy of the chaste and dutiful heroine on the one hand and the licentious westernized vamp on the other. For those who work on the representation of women in cinema, it is important to consider the Nadia persona as one that challenges the predictable traits of both the vamp and the heroine. Like in most anti-colonial struggles, gender and sexuality became areas of confrontation between nationalism and colonialism in India. Inspired by a nationalist project that saw the West as ‘material’ and the East as ‘spiritual’, Bombay cinema created the personas of the vamp and the heroine. Therefore, in post-independence cinematic narratives, women’s sexuality becomes articulated within a discourse of a licentious westernized ‘public’ woman and the inner purity of the ‘domestic’ Indian woman. This dichotomy denotes a further split between the outer material world and the inner spiritual self. The woman becomes the primary representative of this inner spiritual world.  At such a time when these two types were being established in film narratives (albeit with many ruptures) the persona of Fearless Nadia neatly sidesteps both to create a completely new imaginary of the female protagonist.

Dorothee Wenner’s definitive and absolutely delightful biography Fearless Nadia: The True Story of Bollywood’s Original Stunt Queen tells us that Nadia was not only hugely popular in the Indian subcontinent but in the entire Arab one and to quote from the book, she was known from “Beirut to Athens and Nairobi to Cape Town.” Perhaps it would not be an exaggeration to say that Nadia was our first “cross-over” star! I hope future film scholarship will attempt to understand why and how such a persona captivated audiences only to gradually disappear from the narratives of Bombay cinema.

In more contemporary times, the success of Nadia has been repeated by the persona and performance of the female superstar of Tamil and Telegu cinema, Vijayshanti. In all her action films Vijayshanti occupies the same iconic space of the hero. The cinematic tropes and devices that have been conventionally used to portray male action heroes are deployed in Vijayshanti films. In many films, Vijayshanti (like Nadia) plays the double role of a feminine heroine as a counterfoil to her tough image. She occupies not just the space of the hero but also the privileges of saving the woman in distress and single-handedly fighting multiple adversaries. At the peak of her career Vijayshanti was India’s highest paid star and her fee was higher than that being demanded by the top male stars in Bombay.

I have no doubts that in the future Nadia’s screen persona will be a matter of debate and discussion in not just film and performance studies but also gender and sexuality studies. Today, the study of masculinities is increasingly becoming significant in the area of gender and sexuality. Many of us argue that masculinity must not be studied exclusively around the bodies of men. When we try to uncover a hidden history of subaltern masculinities we are bound to discover a wide and diverse range that are not just imitations or derivations of male masculinities but an entire tradition performed by women. Such a tradition of masculinity can be found in the Nadia films.

It is only fitting that several decades later, a self-consciously gay filmmaker Riyad Wadia, chose to make a documentary on Nadia called Fearless: The Hunterwali Story (1993). After Fearless, Riyad ‘came out’ more explicitly with BomGay in 1996, a stylized avant-garde film structured around six poems by the gay poet R. Raj Rao. The film circulated widely in LGBT circles and over 50 International Film Festivals. His next film A Mermaid Called Aida was a feature length documentary on well known transsexual Aida Banaji. Working from Mumbai and New York, Riyad remained a prolific writer, traveler and polemicist till his unexpected and premature death on November 30, 2003.

Without her grandnephew Riyad we would have known little about this great actress. Two people across several decades and now different worlds have left us a legacy whose richness and significance, I have no doubt, will be valued more and more by every succeeding generation in the future.

Shohini Ghosh is a feminist media scholar and academic who teaches at the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia University in New Delhi, India and has made the film Tales of the Night Fairies.