Happy Birthday Fearless Nadia Wadia, a Heroine on and Off Screen

I just love Nadia Wadia. She represents, to me, everything that is good about the Bombay film industry. She was an outsider, she was down and out, and she was welcomed and found love and acceptance. And then she turned around and payed it forward, representing a heroine and an icon for the independence movement, her heroines talking about literacy, anti-casteism, all kinds of awesome things. While having fights on the top of a train.

(almost all of this is taken from Rosie Thomas’s article “Not Quite Pearl White” and a few other chapters in her book Bombay Before Bollywood.  Rosie Thomas is one of my favorite academic writers on Indian film, and she formed a close personal relationship with the Wadia family over years of research, giving her unique access to their records and family stories)

Nadia Wadia, originally known as Fearless Nadia, was born Mary Evans in Perth Australia (thus the Fearless Nadia film festival Australia hosted a few years back).  Her mother was a Greek belly-dancer, her father a British army officer.  The little family moved to Indian in 1911, when future-Nadia was 3.  4 years later, her father died in France in WWI.  Nadia and her mother stayed in Bombay and started a new life.  Until 1922, when an uncle who worked as a vet in a cavalry troupe in North India invited them to join him.  14 year old Nadia learned dancing, horse-back, riding, gymnastics, and every other skill someone was willing to teach her.

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(Melbourne, 2013, one night only special event.  So wish I could have gone!)

6 years later, Nadia arrived back in Bombay with her “brother” Bobby (her newborn son).  She was bored by office work and the other job options available to her.  So she decided to work as a dancer, eventually moving from there to gymnastics performances, and finally building a following as a vaudeville performer throughout Northwest India.  She was tall, muscular, blonde and blue-eyed, and audiences ate her up!

Meanwhile, back in Bombay, the early Indian film industry was getting started.  Contrary to the “accepted” history, it wasn’t all social dramas and historical epics.  The biggest hits were adventure films, fantasy films with magic and special effects.  And the “stunt” films!  Filled with triumphal feats of strength and thrilling cliffhangers.  One of the most successful studios in these genres was Wadia Movietone.  Run by two Parsi brothers, Homi and JBH Wadia.  While Bombay Talkies down the road was run by two European educated Brahmins, Wadia was the land of the lowly outcast.  Parsis, Muslims, low-caste Hindus, they all worked on Wadia pictures.  And that was their audience as well, the ones who just wanted a cheerful and cheap escape.

A friend of the Wadias had seen Nadia perform and suggested her to come to their office to be considered for a bit part in one of their pictures.  Nadia remembers how they stared the first time they saw her, in a bright blue suit with a white hat, much much larger and more musclebound than they were expecting.  She thought they would never end up using her, but the brothers decided to take a chance and gave her a bit part in their next film.  She played a rebellious slave girl.  The camera lingered on her unclothed white body, her big mouth, her blue eyes.  And at the same time, she was given a strong and inspiring nationalist message to speak out.  The audience loved it!

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(Here are the two Wadia brothers a few years later.  Not exactly smooth and handsome and sophisticated types)

Let’s talk about that nationalist message for a second.  The Wadia brothers were, of course, for Independence.  Most everybody was, especially people in film.  Despite the British censors, Bombay cranked out film after film with hidden political messages.  The Wadia brothers saw in Nadia not just a strikingly different looking woman, but a way to get their controversial messages across without being that controversial.  Statements like “Hey mister, don’t think today’s women are so weak they’ll submit to the brutality of men….if India is to be free, women must be given their freedom….if you try and stop them you’ll face the consequences,” would go down easier both for the colonial audience and the conservative Indians if they were said by a bright white face, instead of the Indian woman who is supposed to stay back and be silent, or the Indian male who needs to be controlled and feared.

Various | Fearless Nadia posters | Strange Flowers

(She’s scary, right?  And kind of amazing!  And I really want to dress up like her for Halloween some year!)

Over the years, as they had success after success with Nadia as their heroine, the Wadia brothers became ever more radical, especially JBH, the older one.  He joined a radical humanist group, breaking with the Congress party.  And he tried more and more to insert social messages into his films, everything from women’s freedom to anti-caste system, along with the same old anti-British lessons.

Nadia was a shining center of that effort.  She would stride across the screen in pants, leaping on her horse “Punjab Ka Beti”, riding down evil doers, taking on half a dozen enemies at once, rescuing the hero, or the second heroine, or anyone else who needed rescuing.  At the same time her character would found literacy drives, charities, schools, all social goods.  And the crowds loved it!  They would cheer and whistle when she appeared, and go in droves to watch these films that talked about all the evils of society that were oppressing them, and how it could be solved by one muscle-bound fearless white woman.

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(Take that, ancestral princely powers!  Nadia is here to whip you into shape!)

While JBH got more radical, Homi got more filmi.  He loved Nadia, both onscreen and off.  They met when he was 23 and she was 26 and already a mother.  Over the years, they formed a tight bond which lasted for the rest of their lives.  They didn’t marry until 1961, when she was 53, but they had been together for decades already, and Homi was the only father her son Bobby ever knew.  Nadia wasn’t just his lover, she was his partner.  In later years, Nadia was as much the director and writer on her films as Homi.  She continued acting, and he continued directing her, into her 60s.  Through out the Independence fight, her films continued to have a strong social anti-British message.  After Independence, they slowly became more and more light-hearted.  Homi also found a new star, a male star to balance Nadia, John Cawas, a body-builder.  India’s Johnny Weissmuller in a new series of Tarzan films.  Culminating in 1968 with a film in which young and muscular John Cawas teams up with 60 year old Nadia in her old “Hunterwali” character to take on their enemies and bring justice to the world.

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(Check her out, over 50 and rocking the black bodysuit!)

They finally shut the studio down in the 1980s.  Nadia lived to age 88, always living in Bombay.  Homi died ten years later.

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(Doesn’t she look like a nice Grandma?)

The sad things is, in the years since, the Fearless Nadia film series, and her “Hunterwali” character, have lived on in cultural memory but a lot of the details have been forgotten.  Somehow what is left is the idea of a sexy woman in a mask on a horse.  Well, not “somehow”.  That is the image that is easy to swallow, that fits nicely within the easy cultural narrative.

We don’t want to remember that the “sexy woman” was white on the outside and Indian on the inside, that she lived in India from age 3 until her death and considered Bombay her home, even if she didn’t speak fluent Hindi or have brown skin or black hair.  That brings up all kinds of  complications into the ideal of “pure Indian womanhood”.  And we also don’t want to remember that her character wasn’t a weak sexual object, but the heroine of the film!  Stronger and braver than every other character, man or woman.  And looking it, not one of those waifish magical female character who can somehow over-power all men.  No, she was large enough that people were taken aback when they first met her!  And strong enough that she could still do her own stunts at age 60.

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(The title says it all, right?  Not a Queen, a Fighting Queen!  Indian culture doesn’t quite know what to do with that)

That’s hard enough to grasp with her onscreen characters, but off-screen is even harder!  She isn’t some ingenue “tricked” into being in films, or a shallow woman obsessed with fame.  She’s a single mother who chose to work in entertainment because it was more interesting than any “respectable” job.  And she fell in love with her producer and he with her, even though he was a young unmarried man and she was older with a child.  And they stayed in love for 60 years.  This doesn’t fit into any box that we know of!

The biggest example of how the “real” Nadia is too much for us to handle, even decades later, is the way she was changed for the character based on her in the recent film Rangoon. Kangana is brown on the outside but white on the inside, for some reason.  Sure, it’s a sexy idea, and a lot less threatening than a 6 foot blonde woman tossing men around, but it doesn’t make much sense!  She tends to shriek in fear, and needs a bodyguard, and doesn’t know anything about politics or “men’s business” type stuff.  I mean, the line they give her? “Do you know why God made beautiful girls foolish?  They are beautiful so men will fall in love with them.  And they are foolish so they will fall in love with men.”  Oh come on!!!!  Is that something that the original Nadia would have said?  The one who learned to ride and shoot and dance and supported herself and her son by working in a traveling show?  And cheerfully refused to change her name to “Nadia Devi [Angel]” because “I’m no Devi”.  Or would she just have thrown her head back and laughed and laughed, and then ridden off into the sunset with her famous rally cry of “Heyyyyyy!”?

It doesn’t even make sense, why would some simple-minded little sex kitten even know how to ride a horse?  Plus, I am also a little irritated with the idea that Kangana-Nadia’s main fans are horny young men.  The real Nadia, her fans were men, sure, they liked the action scenes and seeing a white woman on film.  But also children, who loved to imitate her stunts and her rally cry.  And women, who responded to her feminist message.

But you know what makes me really angry?  What they have done to Homi Wadia in this same story.  Made him into some British collaborator older man obsessed and possessive about his star.  Where is the innocent younger man who falls in love with an older woman?  Who makes her his business and artistic partner and finally marries her when they are both in their 50s?  Who loves her until the day he dies and she loves him?  It’s just so yucky!  Implying that the power difference between a director/producer is always like this, that the Svengali relationship is inevitable.

But the real sin is the lesson that the film producers, and Indian film in general, was a shallow industry that only cared about profits and surface concerns, not the political issues roiling through the nation.  Wadia Movietones almost went bankrupt thanks to their efforts to bring a progressive message to their films!  They were literally more extreme than Gandhi, following a group that was too far to the left for him to endorse.  And it wasn’t just the Wadias, film was on the bleeding edge of politics.  Still is, for that matter!  Running Shaadi has abortion, same-sex marriage, and inter-caste and interreligious marriages.  And the movie industry has always been on the far edge off-screen as well, interreligious and interethnic marriages are the norm, all outsiders are welcome to find work.

The only reason you wouldn’t know that is, like just remembering the second hand stories of Nadia in her mask and with her whip, you only learned about the films secondhand as well.  The Nadia films, and all the Wadia films, they weren’t for the “upperclasses”.  They weren’t the ones the intellectuals talked about, the ones that the film studies people watch now.  And so they were written off based on colorful posters and silly titles.  No one bothered to think about the reasons that the poor and oppressed audiences might have gravitated towards these films, and the poor and oppressed artists might have wanted to work on them.  No, it’s just a pretty woman with a whip, the literacy message, the talk of woman’s freedom, and India’s freedom, that is all forgotten.

But tomorrow is Nadia’s 113th birthday, so let’s remember her for who she really was. A complicated strong loud working woman who fell in love with a sweet young man in glasses, who was part of the fabric of Bombay and India until the day she died, who was in movies to make a living, to send a message, and to just enjoy herself.

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