Remembering Fearless Nadia, India’s First Female Superhero
A tribute to India’s first and truly fearless female superhero, Fearless Nadia on her birth anniversary.
She could jump off cliffs, engage in combat on a running train, swing from sparkling chandeliers, befriend lions, and whenever needed, she could land mean punches and kicks on men, at times, several, all at once. And her debut as a princess appeared as if she had the blessing of the Greek goddess Aphrodite.
Well, dear readers, we are not talking about Wonder Woman, America’s foremost super-heroine. We are talking about Fearless Nadia.
Mary Ann Evans Becomes Hunterwali
The dawn of the Second World War took the world to hell, and readers found their rescue rangers in superheroes, the caped crusaders among us. India, too, was reeling under the ripples of the upcoming war, being one of the colonies of the British Empire. It was at this time that a woman emerged on silver screen, first as a princess, then as a masked vigilante in Hunterwali, a title that roughly translates to ‘the woman with a whip’, and gave us our first female superhero. The year was 1935.
This was also the time when women were slowly warming up to the idea of acting on screen. Starting from a time when men used to play heroines, India took a long time to accept women as women on screen because acting wasn’t considered an honourable profession. So only Anglo-Indian, Jewish or Parsi women were cast in our movies. Or at best, women from families of performers would get the job. All was well until Durga Khote vandalised the taboo by choosing to act, because she hailed from an elite Maharashtrian family. She opened the doors of a new career for the women of India.
But women were more or less tropes to showcase traditional values or amorous passions. In other words, a woman would be portrayed as just that: a woman. And this was how the emergence of Fearless Nadia in Hunterwali was a game changer. A female version of Robin Hood, she appeared as the woman who trumped over men to deliver swift justice. The film surprisingly was a huge hit, and made an unthinkable star out of Nadia. How did the not-so-tolerant India find a swashbuckling woman playing a superman acceptable? The answer probably lies in her race and grace. A white woman, a beautiful one at that, provided the window to guilty pleasures, and men hooted Nadia to stardom.
Fearless Nadia Was Everything Daredevil
Born to a Scottish father and a Greek mother as Mary Ann Evans in Perth, Western Australia, she came to India as a little girl with her family. Like every girl of her age, she learnt how to sing and dance, and even sang in church choirs. Growing up in the North-West Frontier Province, her dainty tastes changed and she learnt horse riding, hunting, fishing and everything daredevil.
Fate took away her father during World War I, and after much deliberation, the family moved back to Bombay. Evans by then was on the plumper side, and she joined a dance troupe to lose weight. The dance school was run by Madame Astrova, a Russian dancer, who saw poise in Evans’ moves, and selected her to be part of her travelling troupe. When a fortune teller suggested a change of moniker with the letter N, she chose Nadia.
She was successful as a dancer, but decided to give the career of a trapeze artiste a shot, for circuses were a big draw back then. Eventually, she abandoned her job as a circus professional and returned to dancing, this time performing to Hindi songs. Soon, she was spotted by a cinema owner, and word reached J. B. H. Wadia and Homi Wadia, the brothers who owned Wadia Movietone. A meeting was set up, and tongues wagged when it was discovered that she was too western to be a heroine in Indian films, that are populated with Hindi speaking characters. But she was rather bold, and her repartee with the interviewer earned her brownie points. She first appeared in a minor role, as a slave girl in Desh Deepak (1935) and graduated to the role of a princess in Noor-e-Yaman (1935). The response was positive, and the Wadia brothers started toying with the idea of subverting the portrayal of a woman. And the whip-cracking Hunterwali was born.
Fearless and Fiery, Always!
Her punch line was, ‘I’ll try anything once!’ And she did try anything and everything. She played multiple variations of her Hunterwali character throughout her career spanning decades, and performed her own stunts in every single one of her films. Yes, she actually performed stunts which included fighting atop a speeding train, swinging from a chandelier, carrying or bashing men, she did it all, with an ease even men found difficult to achieve. The Wadias gave her stunts tougher and meaner, upping the excitement with consequent releases, which Miss Evans made seem like a mere cakewalk. Miss Frontier Mail, Diamond Queen, Jungle Princess, Baghdad ka Jadoo, Khilari, Lady Robinhood and many more were runaway hits. It was all due to her upbringing as well as her career as a dancer and a trapeze artiste.
On the flipside though, she was never taken seriously as an actor and truth to be told, she didn’t take herself seriously either. Her films took on social issues, and depicted action set-pieces, without forgetting the sense of humour. She had Punjab Ka Beta as her pet horse, Gunboat as her loyal dog, Rolls Royce Ki Beti as her swerving vehicle, and above all, her stunts to seize the day. The audience laughed, clapped, and from the escapist material, took home a social message, and a heroine, worthier than the heroes of the time. Nadia, fearless and fiery, is the legitimate frontrunner of the female Indian superhero.
(The writer is a journalist and a screenwriter who believes in the insanity of words, in print or otherwise. Follow him on Twitter: @RanjibMazumder)
(This story is from The Quint’s archives and is being republished on the occasion of Fearless Nadia’s birth anniversary.)
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