Book Review: Dorothee Wenner’s ‘Fearless Nadia: The True Story of Bollywood’s Original Stunt Queen’

I don’t recall exactly when I realized who the Hunterwali really was. Myth, fictional character, movie character: I had no idea, but—even as a child—I had vague memories of references to a feisty woman who went about cracking a whip (thus, ‘Hunterwali’—the ‘woman with the whip’). A particularly fearless, sharp-tongued woman would jokingly be referred to as Hunterwali, and I always thought it was a generic appellation. Not something derived from cinema, at any rate.

This, mind you, well into the 80s.

Then, somewhere down the line, I discovered the truth: that Hunterwali was a blockbuster hit film from the 30s, starring an actress named Fearless Nadia. The visual—I think it was a grainy photo in an old magazine or newspaper—was enough to explode all my ideas of what old Hindi film heroines (till then, for me, always sari-clad and melodramatic) were supposed to be. This one wore shorts and a clingy top. Her boots were no-nonsense ones, she wielded a whip and she generally looked super badass.

And she was blonde.

Dorothee Wenner's biography of Fearless Nadia

Many years went by before I discovered that Fearless Nadia was not Indian by birth (that blonde hair was a giveaway), and that she shared the same birth month and date with me.

In her biography of Hindi cinema’s ‘original stunt queen’, German film-maker and curator for the Berlin International Film Festival, Dorothee Wenner sets out to explore the life and times of this fascinating actress. Fearless Nadia: The True Story of Bollywood’s Original Stunt Queen (Translated by Rebecca Morrison; ISBN: 0-14-303270-4; Penguin Books; 248 pages; Rs 295) begins with a very brief introduction to Hindi cinema and its reception in the West (among other topics) before moving on to its main subject: the life of Mary Evans, who became so well-loved that “her image was to be seen on the façade of countless film theatres from Beirut to Athens, Nairobi to Cape Town”—and who drove legions of Indian fans into such frenzies that a viewing of a Fearless Nadia film invariably meant some fairly destructive and amateurish re-enactments of her stunts by these devotees.

Born on January 8, 1908 in Perth to a Scottish soldier married to a Greek dancer, Mary Evans left Australia with her parents when she was four years old, to come to Bombay. This city, by then one of the most happening places in this part of the world, was almost fairytale-like to Mary and her mother, and Wenner writes in interesting detail of Mary’s six years of schooling at a Catholic convent, the death of Mary’s father, and the subsequent shift of mother and daughter to Peshawar, where an already athletically-inclined Mary became adept at riding, shooting, and generally being ‘rather wild’.

Hunterwali

The story of Mary Evans’s transformation from an employee at Bombay’s Army & Navy store, to a dancer who toured the country, performing just about everywhere, to the blonde who became the star attraction of Wadia Movietone’s much-loved stunt films is engrossing. Interspersed with Mary/Nadia’s own story are the stories of the Wadia brothers, JBH and Homi (the latter going on, decades later, to finally marry Nadia, whom he had fallen in love with during the 30s). There are anecdotes about how JBH Wadia, much against the wishes of his very wealthy and well-respected family, ventured into the then-disreputable world of cinema. Of how Homi too joined him, and how Wadia Movietone was established. How Nadia (she had settled on that name after consulting an astrologer, who suggested that a name beginning with the letter N would prove fortunate) came to meet the Wadias.

Fearless Nadia in 11 O'clock

And the films they made. Wenner does not, of course, go into the details of each film that starred Fearless Nadia (who acted in over forty films, beginning with Lal-e-Yaman in 1933 and ending with Khiladi in 1968), but she does justice to the landmark films. Hunterwali, the first film to use Nadia’s athleticism to good advantage; Miss Frontier Mail, which had Nadia doing daredevil stunts atop a moving train; Jungle Princess, in which she shared screen space with lions and had some hair-raising adventures while filming was in progress; Muqabla, Diamond Queen, Hunterwali ki Beti (which saw her re-emerge after the splitting up of the Wadia Brothers and the establishment of Homi Wadia’s Basant Pictures); and her swansong, Khiladi, where—despite being 60 years old by then—Nadia still gave no quarter.

The plots of these films are described in some detail, and interesting anecdotes from behind the scenes are shared. (A funny one, for instance, regarding Nadia losing control over a car while shooting for Miss Frontier Mail, or—in the course of the same film, her being elected to break the news of a local extra’s death to his mother). What comes across, again and again, through both the anecdotes as well as Wenner’s writing, is that Nadia was in many ways very similar to the women she portrayed onscreen: endowed with an excellent sense of humour, warm-hearted and generous, a crusader for the poor and oppressed—and immensely brave. Although she did have a ‘helper’ in some films and for some scenes, nearly all of Nadia’s stunts were performed not by extras, but by the actress herself.

Miss Frontier Mail

Although she touches on Nadia’s personal life—her relationship with Homi Wadia, especially—Wenner wisely keeps the focus on Nadia’s professional life. And that includes interesting analyses of the films Nadia worked in. Not just the stunts, but the way Nadia’s onscreen characters reflected various aspects of real life. Wenner writes of feminism in India (and to a larger extent, in South Asia), and draws parallels between Nadia’s feminist characters and the political activist Mridula Sarabhai. She analyzes how, despite India’s still being a colony, Diamond Queen has obviously nationalistic tones to it. Politics, the status of woman, the norms prevalent in Hindi cinema (most of which Nadia broke with élan): all are discussed here, presenting, in its entirety, not just a biography of a charismatic woman, but also a story of a country, a people moving through the times.

Hunterwali

Wenner’s book was written in 1999; the edition I own is from 2005. The time lag between when it was written and when I read it made for some interesting comparisons between what Indian cinema (and India) was like back then and what it is now. Wenner’s statement that no Indian actress can hope to get a role as a heroine after she’s married, for instance, now seems to be increasingly becoming outdated. There are other observations, too, many of them about the portrayal of women in cinema, that have—thankfully—to some extent (nowhere close to fully), become a thing of the past.

On the whole, this is a delightful book, an eye-opener and a fine tribute to a woman who’s legendary in Hindi cinema—and rightly so. I only wish there were more photos included in the book; the few that are there are just too few.

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30 thoughts on “Book Review: Dorothee Wenner’s ‘Fearless Nadia: The True Story of Bollywood’s Original Stunt Queen’

  1. Wow, this sounds really good.
    I hope the German edition still available.
    I wonder how come Dorothee Wenner came to this topic and why nobody else thoguht of it before. I will ask my local bookshop the first thing on Monday, if they can deliver it. Thank you, Madhu!

    • You should certainly look around for this, Harvey! In her introduction to the book, Wenner explains that at the 1984 Berlin Film Festival, Riyad Wadia’s documentary Fearless: The Hunterwali Story was screened, and it took viewers by storm. That was what prompted Wenner to do further research into the life of Fearless Nadia. Amazing book, and she seems to have been such a feisty woman!

    • I hadn’t heard of this either, Anu – and I came across it by sheer accident. Happened to go into a book store (this was a couple of years ago), and saw that they had a sale on, with books piled up on the floor, each for just Rs 100. This was there, and I snatched it up before anybody else could (though I doubt I’d have had much competition). Very glad I bought it, too, though I’ve taken such a long time to get around to reading it.

  2. i had heard that shamak daabar relative of nadia was going to do something related to her. this book seems interesting. thanks di for reviewing it. i came to know about this book. thanks a lott.

    • The book mentions a show he put up as part of anniversary celebrations for Wadia Movietone.

      Do try to get hold of the book; it’s very interesting reading, not just for the woman herself, but for the times she lived in.

  3. Wonderful review Madhu didi! I’d always wondered how Indian audiences would have reacted to an actress like Fearless Nadia on screen, but I reslised that they would have not only Bowen amazed by her stunts but would have also admired her beauty as well :p. But again, we did have bold actresses like Devika Rani too, at that time.
    Very nice review didi!! Thank you

    • Thank you, Rahul. Yes, I’ve also always wondered how Indian audiences would have reacted to Nadia, not so much because of her ‘boldness’ (there were several Anglo-Indian or Jewish actresses, like Sulochana, who acted in fairly ‘bold’ films, for example), but because of the sort of discordance one sees in her films. Because Nadia’s films always have her with an Indian name, with obviously Indian parents – yet blonde. So hard to swallow. But they seem to have lapped it up. Wenner tries to make an attempt to explain the phenomenon, but I’m not really convinced, It still seems to require quite a suspension of disbelief.

      • You know didi, its only after reading your reviews of books and movies that I’ve learnt to critically analyse them.. Especially your review of the book Housefull was honestly an eye opener.. Again now your opinion that you were not entire convinced by the author’s reasoning is true, because earlier I used to blindly accept the author’s facts and statements without scrutinizing them carefully.. So thank you so much didi!!!

  4. Thank you for the beautiful review.
    Fearless Nadia the Hunterwalli still grips the mind of Indians 80 years after her filmi exploits.
    This book is full of nugets about this extraordinary lady of yesteryear films.

  5. I enjoyed reading this review, and I have to find this book sometime. I really enjoyed watching Miss Frontier Mail (posted to Tomydan55) within the past few months. (Madhu, you may have noticed the pic of Nadia lifting weights, taken from that movie, that I put in my blog’s sidebar.) Not long after I watched that film, I actually watched a Hindi movie from contemporary times, the fictionalized Gulaab Gang film starring Madhuri Dixit. I couldn’t help thinking about Fearless Nadia while I watched it, but the Fearless Nadia action scenes seemed much more genuine to me. :)

    • It’s been a long time since I watched any Nadia films, so after I eat this book, I went off to YouTube to check if there were any – and found Tom’s version of Miss Frontier Mail, which I promptly downloaded. Intend to see it it sometime soo, and am looking forward to it. Nadia’s films weren’t great when it came to script or acting, but one couldn’t fault her for sheer gutsiness. Totally kickass.

      Do keep an eye out for this book, Richard – I think you’l like enjoy it. :-)

      • Well, there’s Muqabala as well, but without subtitles. I think Miss Frontier Mail is the better film, though. I wish I could get both Hunterwali and Diamond Queen. I’m hot on the trail of Diamond Queen.

        I’ve read the book and it’s quite good, I think. Just the way biographies are supposed to be. Not at all like the very disappointing (to me) Helen biography by Jerry Pinto.

        • I will try and watch Miss Frontier Mail sometime soon, then. Thank you for cleaning that up, Tom! I had a very brief glimpse of it, and the quality is immeasurably superior to that of both Baghdad ka Jaadoo and Jungle Princess, the only other Nadia films I’ve seen so far.

          I haven’t read Jerry Pinto’s biography of Helen yet, though I have heard of it. What did you find disappointing about it?

          • “I haven’t read Jerry Pinto’s biography of Helen yet, though I have heard of it. What did you find disappointing about it?”

            When I read a biography of a person, I want to know about that person and there’s very little of that in Pinto’s book. It’s true that Helen refused to be interviewed for the book, but there were plenty of other people he could have interviewed and he did none of that. Shammi Kapoor would have been able to provide a wealth of information about her, what she was like, and what it was like to work with her. And Dev Anand. Instead, Pinto focused on her importance to India and Indian film. Chapter after interminable chapter. And it all bored me to tears. By contrast, in addition to all the intellectual, academic, highbrow stuff stuff in the Fearless Nadia book, we got a good idea of her background, the obstacles she had to overcome to get where she did, and a good idea about Nadia the woman, rather than just Nadia the icon.

            Lots of people like the Pinto book about Helen, maybe including some of your regulars. But I’ll take the Fearless Nadia book any day. Nice review, and maybe others will read the book and seek out the movies after reading your review.

            • “Instead, Pinto focused on her importance to India and Indian film. Chapter after interminable chapter.

              Yikes. While one can’t deny Helen’s contribution to Hindi cinema, there’s a lot about her as a person that I’d want to read. And considering she had such a long career, considering there was a time when she appeared, at least in an item number, in just about every other Hindi film being made, I’d think there would be lots of people who’d have lots to say about her. Even if she didn’t agree to being interviewed.

              I agree with you about the way the Fearless Nadia book discusses her life: it presents the woman behind the icon brilliantly. And without being really gossipy, which was what I liked. Just enough of her personal life explained as would have an influence on her professional life.

              Now I’m tempted to look for the Helen biography, just for the sake of it.

  6. My father first introduced me to Fearless Nadia, I mean figuratively, I never met her personally. My father narrated the stories of Nadia’s films and her stunts and there was someone else he admired that is he admired this person’s physique and this was Prithviraj Kapoor in the film Sikander. Like any young boy he too probably aspired to have those biceps and triceps.
    For an article on the portrayal of women in Indian cinema -back in my journalism days- I did some research on Nadia and yes that was quite an interesting assignment.

    • That must have been a very interesting assignment, Shilpi! From what I can tell from the book, she seems to have been a thoroughly fascinating woman.

      I must get around to watching Sikandar one of these days. I’ve seen a couple of clips of it, and Prithviraj Kapoor looks so handsome and powerful!

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