It seems fitting that this is the post to celebrate my five years of blogging! I never dreamed on June 22, 2007 when I created Memsaabstory that it would become such a big part of my life and be the catalyst for so much learning and so many wonderful and rewarding friendships. I never dreamed that people would embrace the insanity that leads me to do things like this and this and this (and this, okay I’m stopping now), and I certainly had no idea how generously people would share their treasures with me. This is one such gift.
Miss Frontier Mail is utterly charming, made with the usual Wadia enthusiasm and attention to loony detail. The “Indian Pearl White” is certainly the focus, but she is more than ably supported by gangsters who balk at being dastardly, a fearsome spy-movie “Boss” precursor and his go-getter female assistant, futuristic gadgets, thrilling fights and chases, a banana-loving buffoon and so much more. It often feels very much like a silent movie, starting off with only music and no dialogue until seven or eight minutes in; title pages are interspersed throughout, the acting is exaggerated, and you can often hear the camera whirring. Like the Frontier Mail train itself, it picks up speed quickly and we’re off on a rollicking good ride as Fearless Nadia battles comic-book villains between dainty sips of tea in her fabulous Art Deco house. It is a literal and figurative rush of trains, motorcars, motorcycles and even an airplane!
We begin in the darkness of the Lalwadi train station as a gang of shadowy figures empty the warehouse of its goods to be transported. Led by a creepy man in what looks like a gas mask but later reveals itself to be a large microphone, they are nearly caught by the deputy station master, Ishwarlal; hapless Ishwarlal sees the gang leader’s face in the ensuing scuffle and is killed. Unbeknownst to the bad guy, one of his henchmen also sees his face and is astonished when he recognizes him.
When station master Maganlal (Master Mohammed, who also wrote the music for the film) finds his dying colleague—and despite me shouting “For the love of God don’t pick up the knife!”—he picks up the bloody knife next to the body and is instantly arrested for murder by the railway police as they conveniently burst in. How many times have filmi police ruined someone’s life on such flimsy evidence since then? Hundreds. Maybe thousands. Maybe TENS of thousands. Never, ever, ever, touch the murder weapon or get the victim’s blood on you if you are in a Hindi movie. It spells doom.
Maganlal has a tall, strong, blonde daughter who loves to hunt named Savita (Nadia) and a son Jayant (Jaydev, the “Indian Frankie Darro“) who is an aspiring filmmaker always accompanied by his goofy banana-obsessed sidekick Lagoo (Manchi Thoothi). They receive a telegram from their uncle Shyamlal (Sayani Atish) giving them the news that their father is in custody. But as they exclaim in disbelief, someone throws another letter at them from the bushes.
It’s the henchman who had recognized his leader the evening before, and he wants to meet Savita that afternoon. First she needs to see her father, now at the railroad’s HQ in Bombay. This involves a frantically comedic bicycle ride (she takes the hapless telegram guy’s bike, and then takes out a few hundred vegetable vendors) and a last minute leap onto the Frontier Mail train. She arrives just as the head of the railroad (Jal Khambata) hands over Maganlal to the authorities behind his locked office door. Maganlal’s brother Shyamlal is there with him—and he is none other than the gang leader himself!
Savita fights through a whole lot of office peons with glee and not a little panache and gains entry.
Savita is called Frontier Mail because she is fast: she rides fast, she drives fast, her switch is basically always on. She tells everyone present—including Shyamlal—that there is a witness who can exculpate her father and the railway head’s son Sunder (Sardar Mansoor) reads the note aloud, triggering Maganlal’s memory. Uh-oh.
Jagannath is of course the henchman who saw Shyamlal’s face, and I don’t hold out much hope for his making it through the afternoon. Shyamlal pretends to be happy at this turn of events, and offers Savita his car to go to the meeting spot. He is thwarted by Sunder, who is clearly smitten with Savita and also offers her his car. She happily accepts but insists on going alone. She speeds off in his car, leaving Sunder and his admiring gaze in her dust.
He decides to follow her and takes his father’s car (“Kids today are so spoiled!”). Shyamlal excuses himself and drives off in a hurry—no wondering why!
Shyamlal’s gang spend most of their time singing, gambling, and drinking, and seem disinclined towards villainy. They are really more like Keystone Cops than gangsters! They are prodded into action only by the lovely Gulab (Gulshan) when Shyamlal contacts them about Jagannath (who is now on his way to meet Savita). I am already so thrilled by the radio, the ginormous microphone, and the lazy gangsters that when Shyamlal calls himself Signal X it almost kills me off.
It must be said that the two women in this film are really the highlights for me: smart, strong, stylish, and completely kick-ass.
Gulab organizes the expedition and dons a Zorro-like face mask. This makes me laugh, because nobody else is wearing one and she looks very suspect indeed. They set up a fake road block and Budhu (Minoo the Mystic)—the CSP guy in the gang—flags Savita to a stop. She looks at the rest of the gang hanging out by their car nearby, Gulab front and center in her mask, and comes to the same conclusion that I have. The two women are dressed almost identically too, in jodhpurs, riding boots, blouses with frilly puffed sleeves, and bindis on their foreheads. Savita’s beret makes up for her sad lack of a mask. Stylish!
She drives through the blockade at top speed and they race after her. Bringing up the rear is Shyamlal in his black hardtop and Sunder far behind; there is a lot of dust! Savita meets Jagannath at the meeting place but he drags out the conversation so that Signal X gets there and shoots him before he spills the beans, although by that point he could have recited the whole Yellow Pages if he’d wanted to. Shyamlal escapes while his gang engage Savita in gunfire and then fisticuffs, until she gains reinforcements in the person of Sunder (who finally gets there) and then Jayant and Lagoo. The gang defeated, Savita and company run back to Jagannath, who is hilariously still breathing but nonetheless still fails to give her the name she needs.
Nice work milking that situation for all it’s worth, Homi Wadia!
At this point I am wondering what has happened to John Cawas (billed in the credits as the “Indian Eddie Polo“), who has only been seen fleetingly in a photograph carried by Jagannath. Sunder (credited as “Hind Kesri” probably referring to his eponymous role in the 1935 Wadia film of that name) is clearly Savita’s love interest here, and though I have nothing against him he looks like a little boy next to her. And he is no John Cawas! Still and all, romance isn’t really the focus so it’s a minor quibble. He accompanies Savita home and on the way they run into Shyamlal, who pretends to be upset that Jagannath failed to provide the murderer’s identity.
Sunder decides that he’ll ask his father for a transfer to Lalwadi station in order to stay close to Savita and some half-hearted romancing ensues. Bless Nadia, she seems as uncomfortable doing romantic scenes as Dara Singh always does.
Back in the gang’s hideout, Gulab is disgusted with her inept cohorts. The robberies which Shyamlal has been coordinating are part of a plot that he has hatched with the owner of an airline company who wants to run the railroads out of business. Mr. Jain is not happy with Shyamlal’s progress and is about to up the ante.
On Signal X’s orders, Gulab sends the gang out to dynamite a bridge just before the train gets to it. Jayant and Lagoo happen to be filming at that bridge, and they quickly realize what’s going on. They shoot a short movie of gang members setting the dynamite and then run to the station house to warn Sunder. Meanwhile, Savita has just left Sunder; at the station she sees the gang members tasked with taking out the train engineer getting on the train. She runs to catch it and a thrilling fight sequence atop the fast-moving train follows. Nadia really was fearless!
She and Sunder manage to stop the train right at the edge of the now-destroyed bridge. Shyamlal is not pleased at all although of course he hides his frustration. Then Jayant informs everyone that he and Lagoo have film of the bandits setting the dynamite. Uh-oh again! I love Shyamlal’s facial expression whenever he is thwarted.
Gulab, back in the hideout, has picked up the photo of John Cawas that Jagannath used to carry—and I perk right up!
Gulab until now is the only person who knows the real identity of “Signal X”. She is in a relationship with Shyamlal, but not unreasonably suspects that he’ll double-cross her; when she meets Jagannath’s morally upright son Kishore (John Cawas) she falls for him and I don’t blame her.
Will Shyamlal get the incriminating film before anyone sees it? Does it even matter since Savita and Sunder, not to mention Jayant and Lagoo, have seen (and punched) the gang members in person quite a few times by now (nit-picking, I know)? If he keeps trying, will he finally get the spectacular train crash he wants? Will the gang be left to sing and drink their days away like they want? Will Gulab betray Shyamlal and team up with Kishore? Will Maganlal ever get out of jail?
Here are a few more things I really love about the film. Gulab and Savita look just as good in saris as they did in jodhpurs, and a sari doesn’t stop Savita from launching herself into a fight!
Savita’s gym! What a woman. Sunder is enthralled too. I adore the posters of strong men on the wall.
Signal X’s radio. We see it rolling in and out of the wall on a pulley system about a hundred times during the course of the film, and it doesn’t get old—especially because Signal X laughs his evil laugh every time. Bwahahahahaaaa!
Signal X’s gadgets, including his disguise and a rifle that shoots sleeping gas.
John Cawas! He must have been a busy guy in 1936 because he only features in the last half hour or so. But he’s worth the wait, and I really like the bond that forms between bad girl Gulab and him. I’ve got to admit that I root as much for Gulab as I do for Nadia, with her silly bandit mask and chain-smoking.
The general ishtyle of the film: from the Dorothy Hamill wedge cuts on the boys, to the bungalows and interior design, to the already-talked-about outfits for the ladies, it’s stunning.
I’ve probably seen as many Fearless Nadia films as anyone—which isn’t many, they being so hard to come by and all—but I had almost lost hope of ever seeing one of the early ones. My grateful thanks to a reader (who wishes to remain anonymous) for supplying me with this, and to Raja and Ava for subtitling it (and one difficult song with horse-racing slang subtitled by Sudhirji) and Tom for putting it together. We can’t release it as part of our Edu Productions project because my friend Roy Wadia (grandson of JBH and great-nephew of Homi and Nadia) owns the copyrights for it, but hopefully this post will make you feel like you’ve seen it (and maybe you can pester Roy in the comments to let us share). He is trying hard to get his family’s movies restored and properly subtitled, but it’s an expensive process and slow and he wants to do it right (ie no Shameroo or Fiends, and I don’t blame him for that!).
Still—keep your fingers crossed for more Nadia in the future!