Article Hindi

Watch: How Fearless Nadia joined Hindi cinema

On her 110th birth anniversary (8 January), we revisit an old video in which the actress spoke of her Australian roots and how she came to be a stunt star in Hindi cinema.

Sonal Pandya

“I’ll try anything once,” says Fearless Nadia, née Mary Evans, in an old interview from a video that prefaced a celebration of her career at the 2014 Alchemy Festival at the Southbank Centre in London, England.

The veteran actress was far past the feisty stunt star she once was, in the 1930s and 1940s, but she was charming as ever as she recounted her glory days in the Indian film industry.

Fearless Nadia’s top 10 film posters

Star of such popular films as Hunterwali (1935), Punjab Mail (1939) and Bambaiwali (1941), Fearless Nadia originally hailed from Perth, Australia. An only child, she came to Bombay, India, as a toddler and remained there. Her father, Herbert, was a solider in the British army and died in France during World War I. She was then raised by her mother, Margaret.

Growing up, the ‘tomboyish’ young woman became interested in cinema, especially with the films of Pearl White, the American star who also did her own stunts, and Douglas Fairbanks, the swashbuckling Hollywood star of the silent era. She used to tell herself, “I wish I could do this one day!”

Mary Evans had taken dance classes as a child and later toured India with a dance troupe. She even worked at the Zarko Circus in 1930 as a trapeze artist for a bit. Madam Estrova, who taught her dance, suggested that she change her name from Mary to Nadia.

Fortuitously, her path collided with that of the Wadia brothers, JBH and Homi. When they asked her what she could do, she good-naturedly replied, “I can do anything once!” She became a pioneer in the world of stunt films as she did all her own stunts, like her idol Pearl White.

Nothing was too much for Nadia — from fighting goons atop a moving train to lifting men. Once Homi, whom she later married in 1960, knew she could lift a man, he had her repeat the scene in her next films as well. “Naughty boy,” she admonished in the video.

The voiceover in the video stated, “Nadia’s unconventional screen persona was a mixture of self-mocking femininity, wondrous agility and unabashed sexuality.”

Fearless Nadia worked hard to make things effortless on screen. She took Hindi lessons, even taking a month to learn three pages of dialogue for a scene in Bambaiwali (1941). Doing her stunts also brought her many injuries. A horse fell on her leg once, breaking it. On another occasion, due to a mistimed jump, she fell from a building and on to a helpful bystander. Thankfully, no bones were broken then.

There has been no one like her on the Indian screen since. No damsel in distress, she brought respectability to stunt films, known for their mainstream appeal but not their content. Having ended her career in the late 1960s with Khilari (1968), Fearless Nadia forged her place in the history of cinema with her unique image, a powerful woman whom no one could cow down.

She retired to a life of quiet domesticity with her husband Homi Wadia in Colaba, Mumbai, and died at age 88 on 9 January 1996.

Watch the video below: