Happy birthday to me. And happy birthday to Fearless Nadia. Yes, Mary Evans—better known as Fearless Nadia, the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, feisty stuntwoman who took the Hindi silverscreen by storm in the 1930’s—was born on January 8, 1908 in Perth.
And, though I may be small fry, at least I share my birthday with some interesting people. Two years back, I celebrated January 8 as the birthday of Nanda; last year I celebrated it as the birthday of Elvis Presley. This year, it’s Fearless Nadia. I’d have loved to have watched one of her iconic films—say, Hunterwaali or Miss Frontier Mail—but since those aren’t commercially available, I’m going to have to be content with this one. She’s well past her prime in Baghdad ka Jaadoo, no longer the whip-cracking siren of her early days, but she still kicks some serious ass.
Baghdad ka Jaadoo (‘Magic of Baghdad’, as it’s written in the credits) was a Basant Studios film, starring Fearless Nadia opposite her long-time co-star, John Cavas, who also directed the film. Neither of them is at their best here as far as looks are concerned, but there’s no skimping on the adventure.
The film begins somewhere out in the countryside near Baghdad (it looks like central India, but never mind). A group of gypsies, singing as they ride along and trundle along in wagons, come across a large tent out in the open.
Their immediate reaction (these guys aren’t particularly honest) is: “Something to steal!” The chief thief sneaks into the tent to see what he can pilfer, and discovers that the tent’s only occupant is a baby, who’s just been bitten by a snake that’s hovering about. The gypsy quickly stamps on the snake, squashing the life out of it; then, to prove that he’s a good soul, even if a thief, he takes out his knife, makes an incision in the baby’s arm where it’s been bitten, sucks out the poison and then cauterises the baby. (All this, thankfully, is carried out with the camera at a level well above the baby).
At this point, a man—a nobleman, if his flashy clothing and turban are anything to go by—enters. He (Sardar Mansoor?) is the father of the baby.
One look at him and the gypsy stops being a good man, and decides to steal some of this wealthy man’s riches. He leaps at the nobleman’s throat, and they battle it out. Much confusion ensues. The tent catches fire; the other gypsies race about; the nobleman gets clonked on the head and faints. The gypsy makes off with the baby, for no reason that I can see. All that nappy-changing, those feeds at odd hours, the incessant bawling… this man doesn’t know what he’s letting himself in for.
Years pass, and the ‘baby’ is now a teenager, Yasmina. Yasmina’s bosom buddy is Salim (I have no idea who most of the actors are till this point and a little beyond). Salim’s most jealous opponent is Qasim, a little boy who’s quite smitten with Yasmina and doesn’t like the idea that she prefers Salim over him. The two boys are constantly having brawls, and Yasmina, who’s pretty good at brawling herself, is constantly taking Salim’s part.
More years pass. Yasmina is now grown up (she’s Fearless Nadia), and is still best friends with Salim (John Cavas). Yasmina is also somewhat of a gangleader for the less law-abiding of the gypsies: she’s the one who distracts passersby while her buddies pick their pockets, or who shoves a hand into an unattended food stall and makes away with kababs and breads to share with her cronies.
Qasim (?) is still deeply in love with Yasmina, and every now and then proposes to her too. She politely declines each time, telling him that there’s no-one in her life except Salim.
And Qasim’s sister (Sheila Kashmiri) is in love with Salim. Qasim finds this strange preference for Salim most puzzling; he thinks Salim’s a nuisance, who, the sooner he’s removed from the surface of the earth, the better for all concerned.
The next few minutes (quite a few minutes) of the film are spent in dwelling upon how much Qasim hates Salim, and how—because Yasmina spurns him—he’s now begun to even not like her very much.
In the meantime, Yasmina’s foster father has also confessed to Salim that he is not really Yasmina’s father, and that he had actually abducted Yasmina when she was a baby. The fact that Salim now knows this isn’t used later in the film, but anyway.
Also in the meantime, the Khalifa of Baghdad is getting fed up with Yasmina’s lawlessness and has decided to announce a reward of 5,000 dinars for information leading to her arrest.
The Khalifa’s an ill man with a bad cough, but he’s resolved to live long enough to see his daughter the princess get married. He tells this to the Prime Minister (who is Yasmina’s real father, now with a few grey hairs, but otherwise recognisably the same man). The Khalifa is expecting a bunch of visitors—potential suitors for the hand of the princess—to arrive at the palace soon.
The princess (Krishna Kumari) and her maid (Vijaya Choudhary) are meanwhile consulting an old crystal-ball-gazing crone, who tells the princess that a handsome young man will soon come into her life. She then proceeds to burst the happy princess’s bubble by adding that he’ll not become a part of her life.
Remember Qasim’s hatred for Salim, and his growing hatred for Yasmina? Lured on by the thought of those 5,000 dinars offered by the Khalifa, Qasim goes off to inform on Yasmina and Salim. Fortunately for our heroine and her boyfriend, Qasim’s sister runs to Salim and Yasmina and raises the alarm, so that they flee the gypsy camp before the Khalifa’s men arrive—and end up fighting their way through the Khalifa’s palace, felling his soldiers left, right and centre.
When they return to their camp, they realise that one person’s missing: Qasim. Qasim’s treachery turns out to have proved dangerous for him; the Khalifa, suspicious of this gypsy who’s betrayed two other gypsies, has had Qasim arrested and has decreed that he be beheaded the next morning.
Of course, this means that Yasmina and Salim sneak into the palace along with their friends the next morning, and manage to rescue Qasim just as he’s coming under the executioner’s scimitar. They also take time out to do a little profitable thievery while they’re at it—Salim, for instance, manages to cling to the floor of the princess’s palanquin and pinch her jewellery off her as she’s being carried through the markets of Baghdad.
After having left the rescued Qasim back at the camp—with admonitions to give up hope of Yasmina, and to be good—Yasmina, Salim and their cronies head back to the Khalifa’s palace in Baghdad. That princess, flaunting all that fabulous jewellery of hers, is irresistible. Rather, her jewellery is irresistible. So what does this gang of no-gooders do, but enter the palace, with a view to stealing some of that jewellery?
—And, being as audacious as they are, they strut in, pretending to be part of the entourage coming to ask for the princess’s hand. Yasmina dons a beard and passes herself off as the Samundar ka Shahzada (the ‘Prince of the Sea’), and instantly wins the heart of the princess…
…while another guest, a nasty Sultan (Habib) connives with one of the courtiers (Nazir Kashmiri) to kill the Khalifa. The courtier slips some poison into the Khalifa’s drink, and before anyone knows it, the Khalifa keels over.
That is the start of the adventure. The magic of the film’s title is yet to come, after all; and Yasmina is yet to discover who her father really is, and she’s yet to show off all the mind-boggling stunts she’s capable of.
What I liked about this film:
Fearless Nadia. True, she’s well past her heyday here; she would have been in her late forties when Baghdad ka Jaadoo was made—but she still manages to pack plenty of punch. There are a lot of very gritty stunts, some smart riding, swinging from ropes, plenty of fisticuffs and bashing up of opponents. And you can see that it really is Nadia who’s doing all of that. I’m especially impressed with the smart way in which she swings a man over her shoulder, then punches him until he’s limp as a dishrag. Atta-girl, Nadia!!
Also good: the music (by Shafi M Nagri; I hadn’t heard any of these songs before, though Keh rahi hai yeh zameen sounded familiar).
What I didn’t like:
The far from satisfactory story line. Abel Kavas is credited as the writer; a relative of John Cavas’s? At any rate, he should have asked for help with the story, which goes all over the place. I don’t mind a threadbare plot for which the main reason is to showcase Fearless Nadia’s stuntwomanship. What irks me is the pointlessness of much of what happens in this film. There are isolated incidents that don’t tie up into one coherent story; there are facts that aren’t made use of to pep up the plot; and people act in ways that make no sense at all. It’s not the worst story I’ve ever come across, but if it hadn’t been for Fearless Nadia’s dynamism, I’d have found Baghdad ka Jaadoo quite lacking in jaadoo.
But yes, you do get to follow in Yasmina’s footsteps as she journeys to search for a magical shajr-e-hayat (the ‘tree of life’). And you get to see Fearless Nadia show off her skills at riding and boxing and wrestling. What a refreshing change from the usual Hindi film heroine!