MITHYL’s Column

A Peep Into The Past

Those were the days of boyhood. Even then I could not remain indifferent to the magic of the screen. At a tender age I could not make much of the Hindi films I watched. Some images have remained in the recesses of my subconscious though. Among them are Nalini Jaywant and Ashok Kumar on horseback in Sheroo and Shorab Modi in Kundan as he is about to steal a loaf of bread. This is a memorable scene. My grandfather once told me that Kundan is a screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.
At a somewhat later stage came what I shall term as the Zimbo era. I remember two titles, Zimbo and Zimbo comes to town in which Azad played the lead role opposite Chitra. The early years of adolescence witnessed what has been referred to as the epoch of Dara Singh.
I have not seen many films produced by J.B.H. and Homi Wadia. However, over the years, I have read a lot about them and their productions. Recently, I came across Dorothee Wenner’s Fearless Nadia. The German writer and filmmaker happened to see a documentary on Nadia at the Berlin Film Festival in the nineties. Its title reads, Fearless: The Hunterwali Story and can be considered as a tribute which Riyad Wadia, a grandson of Nadia, wanted to pay to her.
Wenner was fascinated by the idea of a white woman who behaved differently, in every sense, from the traditional idea of Indian womanhood on the screen and yet was very popular with the audience. As a result, she started writing a biography of Nadia.
In the process, she recreates the atmosphere that reigned in Wadia Movietone, the studio run by J.B.H. and Homi Wadia, brothers who produced the stunt films in which Nadia starred. The reader thus comes to gauge the state of Hindi cinema in the 1930s and 1940s, how the Wadia brothers made their films and what kind of a city Bombay was.
Dorothee Wenner tells us about the life of Nadia. She is born Mary Evans to a Scot soldier in the British army and a Greek dancer with a touring theatre company. She thus travels from Australia to Bombay and Peshawar and then back to Bombay. She begins life as a shop girl in Bombay, joins a touring dance troupe, performs in a circus before in 1934, entering the portals of the studio which the Wadias owned. It is located in the posh neighbourhood of Parel.
Nadia did more than thirty films for the Wadias in the 1930s and 40s. I can remember Hunterwali, Jungle Princess, Diamond Queen and Hurricane Hansa. She and Homi Wadia fell in love. Dorothee Wenner wants to know how Nadia came to be accepted whole heartedly by Indian audiences, and that, despite her unconventional screen persona. One of the reasons why this was so lies in the fact that she created a new type of role for herself which was in every way different from the rigid role models for female characters.
Blonde, blue-eyed Nadia wore tight, sleeveless blouses and slashed villains with her whip, jumped from rooftops, swung from chandeliers, rode galloping horses and threw men about like toys.
Nadia became one of the biggest stars of Hindi cinema in the 1930s and 1940s. She was accepted by Indian audiences because her character was a departure from reality. Her films were set in mythical, fairy-tale worlds wherein an “invincible superwoman-type character fitted perfectly”. For the audiences she was not a woman in a “normal Indian setting of a family or household or workplace”.
The image of the woman in black boots and a whip has remained in my subconscious. Dorothee Wenner’s book sheds light on a particular era of the Indian cinema with which I was not acquainted. Fearless Nadia is a well-written biography about the success story of a woman who dared to be different.