on the actor's trail

With ‘Rangoon’, another reminder of 1930s stunt heroine Fearless Nadia’s enduring appeal

Although Vishal Bhardwaj has denied similarities, the discussion about the inspiration for Kagnana Ranaut’s character underlines Nadia's continuing popularity.

In Vishal Bhardwaj’s upcoming period romance Rangoon, Kangana Ranaut plays a swashbuckling 1940s movie star named Julia. Set during World War II, Rangoon is a love triangle between the actress, her studio boss (Saif Ali Khan) and the soldier (Shahid Kapoor) assigned to guard her when she travels to the Indo-Burma border to cheer up the troops.

The trailer of the February 24 release suggests that Julia is modelled on Fearless Nadia, the stunt star in the 1930s and ’40s who headlined such adventures as Hunterwali, Miss Frontier Mail, Diamond Queen, Hurricane Hansa, Lutaru Lallna and Punjab Mail. Bhardwaj has denied that Julia is based on Nadia, and has said that the character is a composite of several leading actresses at the time. Although he did not respond to queries by Scroll.in, Bhardwaj has been quoted in media reports as saying, “We have tried to create the ethos of the era but it’s a work of fiction. It certainly doesn’t follow the life of any of the various actresses of that era be it that of Fearless Nadia, Miss Zebunissa, Miss Padma or Ramola.”

But the Wadia family, which produced most of the films that made the half-Greek and half-Scottish Nadia a star in India, differs. Nadia was a discovery of Wadia Movietone, set up by the brothers JBH and Homi Wadia in 1933. Born Mary Ann Evans, Nadia later married Homi Wadia, who directed her in several stunt and action thrillers and fantasy films. The resemblance between Julia and Nadia in the trailers is striking, although it must be said that Nadia was such an iconic figure that any Indian actress who has worn a mask and carried a whip in subsequent movies has been compared to her.

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Rangoon.

Roy Wadia, JBH Wadia’s grandson, said that the family has not been consulted on Rangoon. “There are specific Fearless Nadia-related Wadia Movietone copyright/trademark aspects and issues concerned with the character/persona/creation in question, and we reserve the right to respond to the situation as may be warranted,” Wadia told Scroll.in in an email. “Those who have made Rangoon have not sought the permission or involvement of Wadia Movietone in putting the film together or creating the character that Kangana Ranaut plays.”

Wadia added, “We are seeking legal advice and will take steps as advised.”

Despite Bhardwaj’s denial, there is reason to believe that Julia is primarily inspired by Nadia. Over a decade ago, Bhardwaj had announced a full-length feature film based on Nadia, tentatively titled Julia. The ambitious project was to have been produced by UTV Movies and was to have starred German actress Franka Potente, but it was eventually scrapped.

“Vishal and I (in my capacity as director of Wadia Movietone) met personally ten years ago, in 2007, when he was seeking to make the previous incarnation of the current film, at the time with UTV, and discussed his project at length,” Roy Wadia said.

The excitement over Julia’s inspiration only underlines the timeless appeal of the woman born on January 8, 1908, in Perth to a Scottish volunteer in the British Army and an Australian dancer. Mary Ann Evans moved to India when she was four years old, and was fascinated with cinema from a young age. She trained in ballet, horse riding and hunting and acrobatics as a girl. And after spending an unsatisfying year in a secretarial position, she performed with a travelling troupe run by her ballet teacher, Madam Astrova.

Courtesy Wadia Movietone.
Courtesy Wadia Movietone.

In 1934, Evans, who had renamed herself Nadia, met JBH Wadia. The striking and statuesque blonde woman with blue eyes impressed Wadia, who cast her in a small role in his productions Desh Deepak (1934) and Noor-e-Yaman (1934). She was launched as a heroine in Hunterwali (1935), a seminal title in the stunt film genre in India and the first production to showcase Nadia’s derring-do, athletic prowess, and felicity with a whip.

Nadia’s screen persona was inspired by American heroines such as Pearl White, Helen Homes and Ruth Holland, writes German film scholar Dorothee Wenner in her definitive biography Fearless Nadia The True Story of Bollywood’s Stunt Queen. “However, for the story of Hunterwali, he [JBH Wadia] had drawn inspiration from Douglas Fairbanks’s Robin Hood, the great-grandfather of the cloak-and-dagger films. He combined both these recipes for success and transferred them to an imaginary mystical Indian kingdom, and something unconventionally new came into being,” Wenner writes.

The stunt films were hugely popular with the masses, who reveled in Nadia’s daring stunts (many of which she performed herself) and exotic costumes. The audiences overlooked Nadia’s foreignness and didn’t seem to mind that she was often clad in shorts or trousers and was hardly a damsel in distress that needed saving.

“Although one of the top female stars in the 1930s and 1940s, Fearless Nadia was assigned an interesting, exotic position in this cinema-oriented marriage market,” Wenner writes. “All through her long career she remained single, but from her first film Hunterwali, she escaped being straitjacketed in the rigid role models for female characters on-screen and created a new one for herself. Her unmarried status fitted with her sacrosanct autonomy since on the screen she either never married or simply doubled up with laughter when suggestions of this nature were made.”

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Clips from Miss Frontier Mail (1936).

Nadia’s legendary stunts includes riding on horses with elan, fighting criminals on top of moving trains, sharing sequences with lions, jumping off roofs and lifting men bodily onto her shoulders.

Nadia married Homi Wadia in 1961. However, the silver screen hadn’t seen the last of her. Nadia made a final comeback at the age of 60 as a sassy secret agent (code-name Living Fireball) in Homi Wadia’s Khiladi (1968).

Nadia’s legacy was rediscovered in the documentary Fearless: The Hunterwali Story, made by JBH Wadia’s grandson and Roy Wadia’s brother, Riyad, in 1993. Contemporary audiences marvelled at the exploits of the proto-feminist icon, and a new generation of Fearless Nadia fans was born.

Nadia died on January 9, 1996, eight years before Homi Wadia. Even if Rangoon is not based on her, she certainly seems to have been in the minds of the writers of Rangoon, which include Bhardwaj and Sabrina Dhawan. A press release issued by Ranaut’s publicity department says that Ranaut is “playing a dead giveaway doppelganger of Nadia named Julia”. The statement adds, “…the one person whose massively excited about a film on the life of Nadia is her grand-nephew, choreographer Shiamak Davar.” The choreographer, who is Nadia’s grand-nephew, is quoted as saying about the stunt star, “She was my inspiration! She encouraged me to sing and dance. She urged my parents all the time to never stop me from chasing my dreams. I am where I am because of Marymai’s encouragement.”

Mary Ann Evans, Nadia and now Julia – cinema will never get over the woman with the whip.

Fearless Nadia. Courtesy Wadia Movietone.
Fearless Nadia. Courtesy Wadia Movietone.
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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.