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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