NotesThe four 'Fearless Nadia' posters in this collection, 'Hunterwali ki Beti' (1943), 'Stunt Queen' (1947), '11 O'Clock' (1948) and 'Circus Queen' (1959) advertise films made by Homi Wadia's Basant Pictures and encompass Nadia's career at that studio. 'Hunterwali ki Beti' was the first film made by Basant Pictures and relaunched Nadia's career, while 'Circus Queen' was the last film Nadia made as 'Fearless Nadia' before she retired.
These posters were purchased from a poster dealer in Delhi for inclusion in the exhibition 'Cinema India: The art of Bollywood', displayed at the National Gallery of Victoria and the Powerhouse Museum in 2007. This touring exhibition originated at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London but the section devoted to 'Fearless Nadia' was developed by the National Gallery of Victoria specifically for Australian audiences.
Fearless Nadia (1908-1996) was born Mary Evans in Perth, Western Australia, but the family moved to Delhi in 1913 when her British father's regiment was sent to India. Her father died on the Western Front in 1915 but Mary and her mother remained in India, moving from Bombay to the garrison town of Peshawar. Here Mary learned dancing, horse riding and other outdoor pursuits which became key to her later movie career. She returned to Bombay in 1927 finding work as a dancer and singer. She worked in Zacko's Russian circus, and toured the Asian subcontinent with Madame Astrova's ballet group. During this time, at the suggestion of an Armenian fortune teller she adopted the stage name Nadia. She continued touring northern India, returning to Bombay in 1935 where she was introduced to the brothers Jamshed (J.B.H.) and Homi Wadia at Wadia Movietone.
J.B.H and Homi Wadia were among the earliest of Bombay filmmakers to embrace sound, having previously been successful during the 1920s as independents with a series of populist silent films written by J.B.H. In 1933, within two years of the first talkie released in India, the brothers established Wadia Movietone (1933-1942), with financial backing and film distribution from fellow Parsee, B.H. Billimoria.
By the mid 1930s Wadia Movietone was one of the more successful Bombay studios; producing Hindi language, mainly comedic stunt and action films, reworking popular Hollywood films for their Indian audience. The brothers, like many Indians of their generation, had grown up on a diet of Hollywood westerns, comedies, serials and stunt films and J.B.H. unabashedly admitted the influence of Hollywood on his filmmaking, particularly the films of Douglas Fairbanks Snr. He admired the old serial heroines such as Helen Holmes, Ruth Holland, and particularly Pearl White in the 'Perils of Pauline' (1914) and saw the potential of creating a female action character for Indian audiences.
Upon meeting Nadia, the brothers were impressed with her physicality, but doubted whether her fairness, western name and poor command of Hindi would appeal to Indian audiences. J.B.H. Wadia gave her small roles in two films, accentuating her blonde buxomness, singing and dancing abilities. These met with audience approval encouraging him to launch Nadia with a starring role in 'Hunterwali' (The woman with the whip), directed by his brother Homi and based upon the Douglas Fairbanks film 'Robin Hood'.
From the outset J.B.H. Wadia played on Nadia's physicality and intrepidness in performing her own stunts, billing her as 'Fearless Nadia' and as 'India's Pearl White'. In the film, a thinly veiled nationalist tale, Nadia plays an Indian princess who disguised as a whip wielding warrior seeks revenge upon the enemies who kidnapped her father and assumed rule of the kingdom. 'Hunterwali' was a resounding success and the highest grossing film of 1935 making Fearless Nadia a household name. Wadia Movietone capitalised on this success, releasing a series of 'Fearless Nadia' films directed by Homi Wadia. By the end of the 1930s, largely on the back of these films, Wadia Movietone was the most profitable studio in Bombay and Nadia the most recognisable female star in India.
J.B.H's scripts for Fearless Nadia films reflected his involvement in the Independence Movement as a member of the Congress Party and later as a founding member of the Radical Democratic Party (RDP) led by the left-wing M.N. Roy. British censorship law prevented any overt reference to Indian nationalism in films, and J.B.H. Wadia, like other contemporary filmmakers, circumvented this rule in his scripts through implicit references to politically sensitive issues and using nationalist symbols that would be understood by the audience. Opposed to the traditionally submissive role of women in Indian society he also imbued the Fearless Nadia character with strong feminist principles.
While not an obvious choice to play an Indian heroine, in her films Nadia always played an Indian woman, albeit one who rode horses, drove cars in chases, fought men on the top of moving trains, used whips, guns and other weapons and often wore non Indian attire. There was little attempt to hide her buxom physique, pale complexion and blonde hair, although the impact was lessened somewhat by the medium of black and white film and the disguises she wore. Until very late in her career Nadia performed her own stunts, adding to her audience appeal. Her link to the Indian nationalist cause was established in 'Hunterwali' her first film which was subtitled 'the brave Indian girl who sacrificed royal luxuries to the cause of her people and her country', but continued throughout her film career. With successive films she is increasingly referred to as Bombaiwali (the woman from Bombay), implying a sophisticated modern woman.
The stunt film genre was at its peak in the 1930s, largely due to the popularity of the 'Fearless Nadia' films. But by the 1940s a growing urban middle class audience's preference for social films and disdain for stunt, mythological and historical films saw a decline in their appeal in big cities, the A class distribution territories. However, stunt films maintained their popularity in regional and poorer urban areas, the B and C territories. These formulaic films were churned out cheaply with the emphasis on spectacular stunts. This was certainly the case for the Fearless Nadia films, although they still managed to recover their costs, largely due to their success in northern Indian and overseas territories.
Creative differences between the two brothers led Homi to leave Wadia Movietone in 1942 taking Nadia's and her costar John Cawas' contracts with him. He started his own production company, Basant Pictures the same year with the intention of specialising in cheaply made stunt and action films to appeal to the B and C class territories. While his first film was a flop, he revived the Fearless Nadia series with 'Hunterwali Ki Beti', the sequel to 'Hunterwali' (1935). It was a huge hit in 1943 and relaunched the career of the aging Fearless Nadia. Homi Wadia, an astute businessman, in leaving Wadia Movietone and starting Basant Pictures had taken a calculated risk with 'Hunterwali ki Beti', relying on the audience's continuing love for the whip cracking Nadia. He recognised the successful formula of a Nadia film required certain plot elements: a conflict and its resolution, slapstick dramatic stunts, action sequences, romantic interludes and song inserts. He continued to replicate this formula in Nadia films such as '11 O'Clock' for the next seventeen years until her retirement in 1959.