LITERARY REVIEW

The one and only hunterwali

Biography

wali

AMITA MALIK

The one and only hunterwali

IT is a little ironic when authoritative biographies of top Indian film personalities are first written by foreigners. It was Marie Seton who did solid research and brought out the first in-depth book on Satyajit Ray. And now it is an equally well-researched book on Nadia, aptly claiming to be "the true story of Bollywood's original stunt queen". It is indeed written with German thoroughness and originally in German by Dorothee Wenner.

And why not? Because, in a way, this book started at the Berlin International Film Festival in 1994. I remember an enthusiastic young Indian inviting festivalgoers to see his documentary film — "Fearless: The Hunterwali Story". Berlin is a very serious festival, his shows were well attended and festival buffs were astounded at what Riyad Wadia, who had made the film on his great-aunt, revealed, "a radical feminist actress in Indian cinema history, one who wielded revolvers to the accompaniment of rousing music, then raced along the top of racing trains, beat up men, played with lions and who was smart, self-confident and funny into the bargain".

And this book, which was inspired by Wenner seeing the film in 1994, is, indeed, a fascinating story of a woman born in Australia with a British soldier father Herbert Evans, and a "strikingly merry Greek" mother. Born on January 8, 1908 and christened Mary Evans, four years later her father was transferred to Bombay. His wife eked out a modest living with meagre funds and none of the comforts of officers' wives. After Mary's father died in World War I, it was a hard struggle for Mary's mother to send her daughter to a good school, where she horrified the nuns by saying to them, after seeing Theda Bara in the film "Salome", that she wanted to become an actress. She had already learnt to sing beautifully in the school choir, having earlier learnt Polkas and Scottish dances from her father and Greek love songs from her mother. After that, it is a long and incredible story of a tall, strapping blonde with blue eyes, becoming an icon for women's emancipation in Indian cinema and far ahead of her times.

It is not possible in the course of a review to go into the incredible details about how she got the name Nadia (from a tarot reader), her experiences travelling around India, underpaid but successful, as a dancer in a Russian women's troupe, a short stint in a circus and then that famous moment when a family friend arranged an audition with the Wadia brothers, then among the minority of filmmakers who were successful in the early days of the Hindi cinema. When J.B.H. Wadia, the intellectual of the two brothers, scoffed at her not very truthful claim that she was famous as a theatre actress and said he had never heard of her, she retorted that she had not heard of him either. He broke into laughter and hired her at Rs. 60 per month. Soon, this totally Western-born and -looking white woman was not only accepted over the years by ecstatic Indian audiences but adored by them. Later she married Homi, the second brother, after a long liaison with him, and was finally accepted into a conservative, upper class Parsi family. Her wit, charm and warm and friendly nature made her a valued member of Bombay society and its exclusive clubs. Her personal and professional history are fascinating enough, but this book has several other important facets, including a good selection of vintage photographs and stills.

It is also a compact and concise history of the Indian cinema, from its early silent days to recent times, particularly the status of women and the roles they played and continue to play in Hindi Cinema in the Bombay film. Very far removed, indeed, from the revolutionary attitudes she introduced on her own. It is also a subtle history of the Independence movement, which the author ties up with the roles Nadia played: defiance of authority, the Robin Hood quality of attacking the rich to help the poor, her obvious fights against the Establishment which were too popular for the British to consider a direct attack on them. To add to it, J.B.H. Wadia was a friend of M.N. Roy's, had written a book about him, so readers also get an insight into the personalities of the freedom movement.

I do feel, however, that Wenner stretches it a bit when she ranks Nadia as a forerunner of Mridula Sarabhai, Kiran Bedi and Arundhati Roy. But these parallels and everything in the book indicates Wenner's true German thoroughness in researching for this book.

My one complaint is that the book, with its overflow of people and incidents, does not have an index, a bad habit which is creeping into Indian publishing. One must also end with a sad tribute to Riyad Wadia, who started off this book with his documentary at Berlin in 1994. Although he managed to show the film to his grand-aunt before she died, Riyad himself died recently, of AIDS, while in his thirties.

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