Fearless Nadia

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In India—to my great excitement!—I got to meet Vinci Wadia, the son of JBH Wadia and nephew of Homi Wadia. JBH and Homi Wadia are the brothers who founded the Wadia Movietone studio in the 1930’s, and launched the career of Fearless Nadia the stunt queen. Homi Wadia also eventually married Nadia in 1961. Vinci Wadia spent a couple of hours with me talking about films, life, and Nadia, and generally charming my socks off (as a boy he met Frank Capra on Capra’s visit to Bombay!).

I have been a great fan of Nadia’s since reading her biography by Dorothee Wenner (originally titled in German “Zorro’s Blonde Sister”). None of her films are available on DVD, but Vinci Wadia’s son Riyad Vinci Wadia made a wonderful documentary about her in 1993, called “Fearless: the Hunterwali Story.” Shown at film festivals around the world, it combines interviews with Nadia and Homi—and other luminaries of Hindi cinema—along with photographs and footage of her films to tell the story of Nadia’s life and career.

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Fearless Nadia is one of the legends of Hindi cinema. She was born Mary Evans in Australia to a British father and a Greek mother, who emigrated to Bombay with Nadia when she was very young (her father was a soldier in the British Army). She grew up near Peshawar where she learned to ride horses. After her father was killed in France during WWI, she and her mother moved back to Bombay.

As Mary tells it in the documentary, she trained in shorthand typing to get a good job, but at the same time “I got very fat so I decided to reduce.” In order to lose weight, she took up dancing at a school run by a Russian dance teacher named Madame Astrova. Madame Astrova saw talent in Mary “because I was very supple and good despite being fat” and took her on as a member of her dance/theater troupe which traveled around India. Mary also changed her name to the more exotic “Nadia” on the advice of a fortune teller.

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Nadia left the troupe to work in a Russian circus, but didn’t care for circus life and returned to the stage, dancing and singing Hindi songs as part of her act. A theater manager introduced her to JBH and Homi Wadia, who asked her what skills she could bring to films. She replied “I’ll try anything once!”

To test her appeal with Indian audiences, JBH put her in his 1933 film Desh Deepak as a slave girl.

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She had great screen presence and JBH cast her in his next film, 1935’s Noor-e-Yaman as Princess Parizad.

He credited his Parsi upbringing with his dislike for the submissive characters Indian women invariably portrayed in films. He really wanted to make movies that touted the strength and emancipation of women, and he saw great possibilities in the athletic Nadia. Probably the fact that Nadia was white also helped Indian audiences accept her as a woman so different from the usual Hindi film heroines, and she seemed a perfect actress for his vision.

So in 1935, JBH wrote a screenplay especially for Nadia: Hunterwali (the nickname stuck to her for life). She was an Amazonian figure, blond and blue-eyed: a mask-wearing, whip-cracking, sword-wielding, chandelier-swinging heroine who did all her own stunts. Audiences loved her (how could they not??)! Hunterwali was a huge hit.

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Throughout the 30’s, 40’s and even into the 50’s, she starred in numerous action-adventure films with names like Miss Frontier Mail, Diamond Queen and Jungle Princess. She usually portrayed a Robin Hood-like character, rescuing the poor and oppressed. She also tamed wild animals, and beat up men with ease. One of her most famous scenes had her fighting the bad guys on top of a speeding train! She was often showed working out in a gym, which apparently contributed to a fitness craze at the time as well.

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She and Homi had fallen in love by the 1940’s but didn’t officially marry until 1961. She appeared in her last film (Khiladi) in 1968. She spent her years in retirement happily raising Thoroughbred horses, including an Indian Derby winner. She died in 1995 at the age of 87.

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In recent years, both Shekhar Kapur and Vishal Bhardwaj have indicated interest in making a film about Fearless Nadia. There was talk of Cate Blanchett starring in Kapur’s film, and Uma Thurman or Franka Potente (Run Lola Run) in Bhardwaj’s (I would personally love to see what Vishal Bhardwaj could do with her story!).

Sadly, Riyad Vinci Wadia passed away in 2003. Vinci Wadia told me that although he himself never was part of the film industry, since his son’s death he has taken on the task of preserving Wadia Movietone’s legacy. Riyad had created a wonderful website (well worth a vist) which Vinci would like to update, and he plans on releasing some of the Fearless Nadia films on DVD if and when a film on Nadia finally materializes. Let’s hope it happens, and soon!

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40 Comments to “Fearless Nadia”

  1. While I’ve enjoyed all your references to obscure old Bollywood movies, this one had a certain warmth that I found to be very nice. Reminded me of how I felt watching a moment right at the end of Shyam Benegal’s Zubeidaa, when the narrator (Rajit Kapoor) is watching old footage of his mother’s films.

    Fantastic post! Keep ‘em coming!

    ~r

  2. I love women who kick butt :-) I would really love to see an entire Fearless Nadia film some day. Hopefully Vinci Wadia will be persuaded somehow to make them available on DVD…

  3. This is SO interesting- i must try and get a copy of that documentary—– and if her movies get out on DVD- huzzahhhhhh

  4. She’s awesome, but even the documentary isn’t out on DVD. It is shown at movie festivals on occasion, although maybe not recently since Riyad died.

    I was lucky to meet Vinci, who gave me his only copy of it on DVD to make a duplicate. And that was only due to my friend Dileep…

  5. The Fearless Nadia film “Circus Queen” can be viewed online for free at Rajshri.com

  6. Thanks for that info—sadly, it isn’t subtitled :-( I can still enjoy it but I miss a lot.

    One thing Vinci Wadia said was that he didn’t want to release DVDs with bad or no subtitles—a sentiment I definitely applaud.

  7. I read a couple of pages on Fearless Nadia in Mihir Bose’s Bollywood: A History. It’s a fascinating story. Your post here is great too. Love the pictures!

    And I’d love to see a Fearless Nadia movie, or at least some scenes. I suppose I could watch Circus Queen on Rajshri.com without subtitles… They also put a couple of clips on YouTube. But you know how they are – embedding disabled…

  8. I am in the middle of Bose’s book, it is FANTASTIC. A treasure-trove of Hindi film history!

    I told Vinci Wadia that there was a good audience for Nadia out here :-) I am so disappointed that Vishal Bhardwaj has shelved his film about her. If you are ever in my neck of the woods, I’ll be happy to show you the documentary!

  9. Is it still possible to purchase a copy of the Nadia documentary? I tried to e-mail someone via the Wadia Bros. website (as they have it for purchase), but the e-mail bounced back.

  10. The documentary has never been put out on DVD, nor have her films…I think Riyad Wadia (who was responsible for the website too) planned on it, but he died before he got to it.

    I just found out recently that Vinci Wadia also passed away a couple of months ago :-( I’m so glad I got to meet him, he was a real gentleman. His son Roy apparently has taken over the reins, but I don’t know what his plans for their archives are.

  11. Nadia the Fearless – the documentary…where can i purchase a copy?

  12. Greetings from Bombay. I’m glad to see there is so much interest in the Wadia Movietone legacy. I hope to put the Wadia Movietone archives in shape again, funds willing, so that they can be shared with film historians and film buffs everywhere.

    Feel free to write to me.

    As an aside, please note that Wadia Movietone archival material (including photographs such as the ones posted at this website) are technically copyrighted by Wadia Movietone, and so anyone seeking to publish them or use them in any way needs our permission.

    Best,

    Roy Wadia
    Wadia Movietone
    89 Worli Sea Face
    Andromeda
    Bombay 400 030

  13. Ham apne bachpan me nadiya jonkawas ki filme dekhane jaya kar te the. Tiket hoti thi do aane. kya maza aata tha? Kash yo din loot aaye . Ashokbhai joshi Bharat lodge Amravati.

  14. I am so so glad to find your site and to read more about Fearless Nadia. The documentary was run on Australian television some years ago. I have never forgotten how stunning and inspirational the documentary was. I think that the ABC or SBS broadcasters might possibly be interested to pay to run it again as so many years have intervened I have told so many people about her story, and of course no one in Australia has heard of her or of any of the history of the Indian film industry.

    Thank you for taking the trouble to manage this site. Film has changed the culture of the 20th century and we are blessed to have people who are committed to preserving the media for the next generations. I have already sent the link to this site to my friends

  15. She was truly awesome. Any fan of Nadia’s is more than welcome here! Have you read the biography of her by Dorothy Wenner? It’s very good too.

    I’m glad to have a chance to see a couple of her films although they are later ones. Fingers crossed that more shall become available soon…:-)

  16. Fingers crossed, yes, and I’m trying to whip up some interest with classic movie fans on the web. Any hopes of the documentary being released on DVD? That would sure help the restoration of her films!

  17. If you want the documentary on dvd, buy the book in German, Die Lady mit der Nilpferdpeitsche by Dorothee Wenner. It comes with a dvd.

  18. Memsaab, Vinci Wadia was a wonderful man and a great dinner companion. He passed away some time ago and I regret I could have just one meeting with him. I enjoyed your warm tribute to the whole Nadia/Hunterwarli genre, but of course the brothers Wadia made many more films. One of the other series was Zimbo (Zimbo, son of Zimbo etc.) The VCDs of these are available. Meanwhile my efforts to find Rustam-e-Rome continue. cheers,

    • He really was a lovely man, very very funny. We had a great time together. I have seen the Zimbo films although not written them up (I cannot improve upon Todd’s Zimbo reviews over at Die Danger Die Die Kill) :) I have written about a few other Wadia Bros. films here though, I do love them.

  19. It is my biggest disappointment that I haven’t seen any of Nadia’s films. Can u pl inform me if her films are available on DVD. Or let me know the address where from I could get her films.
    Regards.

    • Join the crowd, Dilip! There are a couple of later Fearless Nadia films on vcd, you can get them at induna.com, but her earlier work is almost impossible to find.

  20. I WAS THE LUCK LEADING MAN IN 1968 TO WORK WITH MADAM ,WE DID KHALIDI IT WAS IN BLACK AND WHITE,A GOOD HEARTED AND A VERY WONDERFULL PERSON SHE CARED FOR EVERYONE ON THE SET AND IN THE STUDIO.THIS WAS HER LAST FILM AND IT WAS A HIT LIKE ALL HER PREVIOS FILM .SHE WAS LOVED AND RESPECTED BY ALL WHO EVER MET HER.WE HAVE AWARDS FOR THE HE MEN IN THE FILM THERE MUST BE A AWARD IN HER NAME FOR THE STRONG IROM WOMAN (HERIONE) IN THE FILMS.I WAS FORCHUNATE I HAVE MET HER AND WORKED WITH HER.

    • Oh how nice to meet you here :) Thank you so much for sharing your experience—I have been looking for that film for some time—hope to find it on dvd one of these days!!! Are you the same Dilip Raj who was in Kanyadaan?

  21. What a delightful article that brought back so many memories!

    As a young kid, I used to see Nadiya and her co-star John Kawas movies and loved how they beat up the bad guys and always good triumphed over evil!

    I would love to see those childhood memories on DVD now! Please tell Wadia family that I would be the first one to buy that DVD set.

    I am sad to know that Nadiya has passed away. She is still alive in my heart. May her soul rest in peace and thanks for the memories.

  22. The website WadiaMovieTone is no more.

    • Yes, I think that Riyad Wadia had set it up and after he passed away it wasn’t maintained. We all just need to cross our fingers and toes and hope that Nadia makes her way to us one of these days, somehow :)

  23. Hi Memsaab, I’ve been reading your blog for quite some time (big fan) and have been meaning to post but never got around to it. But today I finally finished a major achievement. I am a museum curator in Sydney, Australia. 3 years ago we had a wonderful exhibition about Bollywood film poster history, from the Victoria and Albert Museum. Various Australian components were developed, including a section on
    ‘Fearless Nadia’. Wish I could take credit for that – but to cut a long story short – I have just finished acquiring from the exhibition – 4 of the original posters for ‘Hunterwali’, ‘Stunt Queen’, ’11 O’Clock’ and ‘Circus Queen’ into our collection. It has taken me a very long time to condense Indian film and poster history into something suitable for a museum collection – but hooray I’ve done it!! I hope to be blogging about her soon once the acquisition is published online – perhaps in honour of her birthday in January? I love her to bits and am making it my personal mission to sing her praises to the world. To my knowledge our small collection of posters would be the first time she’s been represented in a museum. I’ve had limited resources to work with – the Wadia family being so hard to get in touch with – but I hope I have done her justice. Stupidly though it never occurred to me to look to see if you had written anything about her films! D’oh! I’ve had the pleasure of meeting her son Bob and his family – delightful man. Wish I could have met her and Homi too.
    Anyway I just wanted to share my news with someone who would understand.

    • That’s great!!!! Do let me know when you post is up and give me a link :) I wish I could have met her too, and Homi—it was lovely to meet Vinci, JBH’s son; he was hilarious.

      And being a museum curator (esp. a Hindi cinema museum) would be a dream job for me!

      • I wish it were a Hindi movie museum!!!! I managed to slide my Bollywood interest in because of the Australian connection. But since so many Hindi films are made in Australia now, and nobody else is collecting them, I am slowly carving a little niche by stealth. And Gaby is quite correct – Rachel Dwyer has written about Nadia. There are a couple of others who have done some sterling research (the names escape me at the moment) but there is quite a lot of misinformation out there according to Bobby. Hoping to interview him soon to set the record straight. Would love to get in touch with any of the Wadias left in Delhi. I’d like to document her early career since the posters we have are from Basant Pictures not Wadia Movietone. I finally managed to get a copy of ‘the Hunterwali story’ – they’re as scarce as hen’s teeth!! I also saw you mention you’d like to see Hunterwali – I could swear blind I have seen a link somewhere for it online – or maybe that was Circus Queen……..

        Bobby is also a lovely, kind, generous man and has a wonderful album full of photos and clippings of his mother.

        As soon as I have written my blog and it’s up I’ll send you a link. And that certainly was a stream of consciousness written in bed while I am half asleep!!

  24. Rachel Dwyer did write something about Fearless Nadia in her book All You Want is Money, All You Need is Love…personally, I’d love to see either Cate Blanchett or Kate Winslet portray her…that’d be lovely…

    • Cate Blanchett would be wonderful except she’s not the right build. Kate Winslett would also be great – she’s certainly buxom and ballsy enough to play Mary. I’ve heard the movie version of her life has gone off the boil a bit though so who knows?

  25. Someone like Shekhar Kapur or Mira Nair was going to make the biopic I think, but it got shelved :( Certainly Kate Winslet would do her full justice! I think there was a German actress in the running for it…but I can’t remember the details. I do hope the project is resurrected some day

  26. Dear Madam,
    I am a writer/director and use to assist director tigmanshu Dhulia for many years. I am writing a film script on Nadia’s life and would pursue making a film on it and I am deadly serious. My email id is shiraz.muk@gmail.com. I would like some help on references plssss. My number is 98206 19443. Pls feel free to call or mail.

    Shiraz Mukherjee

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