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Hunterwali’s heroics

Nadia in Hunterwali.  

Hunterwali (1935)

Direction: Homi Wadia

Cast: Nadia, Sayani Atish, Boman Shroff

Music: Master Mohammad

She came, they saw, a nation was conquered! That, in essence, is the story of Fearless Nadia after the release of the genre-defining Hunterwali in 1935. As an actress in the focus of such hysteria, Nadia remains a solitary exception in the history of world cinema. Very few of her hit films can be accessed today, and what I saw of Hunterwali, through chunks of missing soundtrack and faded scenes, at Pune’s National Film Archives, may not recreate the excitement around her ground-breaking debut, but the impact of her energetic performance remains intact nonetheless.

Doing her first film at the age of 25, Nadia’s was a much delayed debut in an industry which, even today, prefers heroines in their nubile teens. Casting the half Scottish, half Greek girl with little knowledge of Hindi and an awkward accent was sheer hara-kiri for any producer in an era when talkies had captured the national imagination and the ability to sing well was often the only prerequisite for a lead actor. Yet, Hunterwali became a pan-India success, running for more than 25 weeks, exceeding the wildest expectations of its ambitious makers, Jamshed and Homi Wadia, owners of one of Bombay’s early studios, Wadia Movietone.

The film revolves around the royal family of a fictitious Indian kingdom. Nadia as Madhuri is the daughter of a righteous but weak and ageing king. Early in the film, we see the king’s cavalcade of cars accidentally hit a handsome beggar Jaswant (Boman Shroff). A flashback reveals that he once belonged to a wealthy family. The kind-hearted princess rushes to the beggar’s aid, but is held back by her prime minister Ranamal (Sayani, a regular villain in all Nadia films) who has a sinister motive. The beggar is treated and brought before the king, who offers money as compensation. He refuses and wins the admiration of the princess, the duo eventually falling in love. But the romantic track isn’t the film’s focus.

In a bloodless coup, Ranamal kidnaps the king and officiates as ruler. Madhuri is allowed to remain a figurehead sovereign while he pursues his ambitions to marry her and succeed to the throne. But once she is made aware of the injustices of Ranamal’s rule, she decides to take on the role of a ‘benefactor in disguise’ to protect the people of the kingdom. She dramatically walks in with a whip in her hand.

She asks, ‘Yeh kya hai? All echo: Hunter.

She asks again: ‘Aur main kaun hoon?’ All exalt in unison: Hunterwali.

The iconic character

And an iconic character is born. Her first target is Ranamal’s heavy-drinking commander. A haughty man, he is introduced in a scene where his soldiers are singing paeans to drinking. The bar’s harassed waiter warns them to beware of the famed ‘Hunterwali’, but the commander jeers and challenges him to call her to the rescue. And, suddenly, she appears from nowhere and leaps into action, thrashing them all, sometimes 10 men at a time!

The sari-clad demure princess turns into a superwoman, wearing a pair of shorts and knee-length boots, a sleeveless blouse with jaunty cape, black eye-mask and Russian fur cap. For the audiences of the 1930s, she was a sight to behold.

Vaulting over walls, jumping from roofs, racing wild horses, and fighting with swords, sticks and even bare fists — Nadia truly embodied the acronym ‘Fearless’. The fight scenes might look hilarious today, but their seemingly Chaplinsque treatment is perhaps a deliberate attempt to make action scenes, which predominantly appealed to male audiences, enjoyable for women and children.

Nadia became a rage and ruled the box office. So much so that filmmaker Homi Wadia (who subsequently married Nadia) made a series of ‘Fearless Nadia’ films – Miss Frontier Mail (1936), Hurricane Hansa (1937), Bambaiwali (1941), Jungle Princess (1942), Hunterwali Ki Beti (1943), Stunt Queen and Himmatwali (1945), Lady Robin Hood (1946), Tigress (1947), Circus Queen (1959) and Khiladi (1968).

German curator-filmmaker, Dorothee Wenner, in the book Fearless Nadia: The True Story of Bollywood’s Original Stunt Queen, writes: ‘Nadia didn’t only look completely different to the dark-haired, meek beauties, her behavior on-screen was also in complete contrast to the submissive, weak, dependent on men ladies on the screen’.

Decades later, at the premiere of the documentary, Fearless – The Hunterwali Story, made by her nephew, Riyad Wadia, at the 1994 Berlin Film Festival, the audience was awe-struck by the brazen celebration of fun, feminism and eroticism in Indian cinema long before feminism became popular in the West.

The critic, author, filmmaker is

Dean, School of Liberal Arts and Sciences,

RV University, Bengaluru.


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Printable version | Oct 26, 2021 9:08:56 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/movies/hunterwalis-heroics/article36494650.ece

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