Fearless Nadia: The Wonder Woman of Indian Cinema

Fearless Nadia ruled the hearts of Indian audience back in the day when acting was not considered an honorable profession for women. Her characters were free-thinking and brave. Her stunts were breathtaking and her spirit contagious, Fearless Nadia will forever remain a feminist icon in the history of Indian Cinema and beyond.

Fearless Nadia: The Wonder Woman of Indian Cinema Fearless Nadia: The Wonder Woman of Indian Cinema Source : Press

Mary Evans was born in Perth to a Scot father and a Greek mother. She became famous as the Stunt Queen of India for her action sequences in Bollywood films. At the suggestion of a fortune teller that her name should start from letter ‘N', she chose Nadia as it sounded exotic and became Fearless Nadia as we famously know her today.

Her father who served in the British Army was posted to India so at the age of four, the blue-eyed, golden-haired four-year-old Mary (Nadia) came to Bombay with her family. When her father died during World War I, her family moved to Peshawar. Nadia was an active girl growing up as she took part in sporting activities such as horse-riding, shooting, hunting and fishing in her childhood as she developed a strong and imposing physique. The harsh countryside of Peshawar made her courageous. She learned ballet from Russian ballerina Madam Astrova and toured with her dance troupe across the country including military camps. Kangana Ranaut's Julia in Vishal Bhardwaj's period film Rangoon was inspired by Fearless Nadia.

Nadia was able to pull off amazing athletic stunts because of her active lifestyle that helped her get a break in the show-business. Her first role was of a slave girl in Desh Deepak (1935) and graduated to the role of a princess in Noor-e-Yaman (1935). Hunterwali, released in 1935 was the film that launched her into stardom. It was the time of India's freedom struggle and to see her fighting for truth and justice; being a ‘white', against the Britishers made the Indian audience adored her fearless self. Such was Nadia's charm that her moniker ‘Hunterwali' which translates to ‘the woman with a whip' became a tagline for accessories such as bags, belts and shoes.

Nadia's famous line, "If the nation is to be free, women have to be freed first." made her a feminist icon in a time when women in film business were seen with moral degradation and contempt. Until the elite Maharashtrian Durga Khote came along, it was men who used to play the women characters in movies (Anglo-Indian, Jewish or Parsi women became exceptions) just like the way it was in Ramlila folk tradition.

She performed her own stunts and went on to star in over 50 films over the next decade. Be it fist fighting men or lions, juggling whips, using swords or guns, and even stopping speeding trains, she pulled off every stunt like the great American filmmaker Buster Keaton used to do in his films.

How come Nadia's Wonder Woman was accepted in the conservative Indian society? Nadia didn't fit the popular depiction of women as the performer of roles rather than real people. She wasn't the typical mother, wife, daughter or a vamp. Nadia's characters broke away from the trend and exercised control over her life. What ‘Hunterwali' did fit was that she was a beautiful woman who was ‘white', an outsider to feed their fantasies unraveling in an illusion.

It didn't matter that she was a misfit in the Hindi film industry. What mattered was that she was ‘foreign', she was unprecedented. Everybody loved her and the Wadia brothers became ambitious as they started to subvert the portrayal of women in Indian Cinema that gave birth to the ‘Fearless Nadia'. They upped the magnitude and intensity of her stunts as she pulled each of them with ease. Miss Frontier Mail, Diamond Queen, Jungle Princess, Baghdad ka Jadoo, Khilari, Lady Robinhood were among the biggest hits.

As the audience reveled in their fantasy, what brought them to the ground was a heroine she was braver than any male counterpart. Fearless Nadia is our very own Wonder Woman.

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