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What a stunt!

RANA SIDDIQUI speaks to Dorothee Wenner, the author of "Fearless Nadia", which documents the life and films of Bollywood's first stunt queen.

Maru Evans alias Fearless Nadia.

WHO WAS Fearless Nadia? Where did she come from? Why did she suddenly vanish? Why after or before her, was there no stunt queen in the Indian cinema? Was there no emotional side to her as depicted in her films? These and more often-posed queries that mostly go unanswered for lack of information about the stunt queen of popular Indian cinema from 1933 to 1968, are finally answered in "Fearless Nadia - The True Story of Bollywood's Original Stunt Queen".

The book is penned in German by Dorothee Wenner, a freelance writer, filmmaker and curator from that country and is translated into English by the London-based Rebecca Morrison. Rebecca lived in Germany as a translator where she met Dorothee. This 245-page Penguin publication was launched at Max Mueller Bhawan in New Delhi this past week. The evening also saw a 62-minute documentary on Nadia by Riyad Vinci Wadia, the great grandnephew of Nadia, Dorothee's main source of information, and interesting remarks by Sohini Ghosh, Reader, Video and TV Production, Mass Communication and Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.

"When I met Riyad in 1993 at the Berlin International Film Festival, I happened to watch his documentary and was amazed to see this visual opposite of the stereotyped Indian film females. So I decided to write a book on her. I spent a lot of time in the Berlin library, National Film Archives in Pune called Film India, met the associates of her tailors, who did her wardrobe in films, her husband Homi Wadia and so on," relates Dorothee.

Nadia, originally named Mary Evans, was the daughter of Scotsman Herbertt Evans, a volunteer in the British Army and Margret, a Greek dancer and theatre person. They lived in Australia before coming to India. Mary was one year old when Herbertt's regiment was seconded to Bombay.

"Before landing in Hindi films, she worked as a variety performer in a circus, which I believe might have helped her do all the trapeze activities in the films," says Dorothee.

On the toes of Hunterwali... Dorothee Wenner in New Delhi. Photo: R.V. Moorthy.

First crossover actress

"What I find remarkable about the Indian audience is that they have great power of tolerance as they accepted a foreigner who neither spoke their language nor fit into two usual stereotypical images of Indian films," she says. The typical Hindi film images Dorothee speaks of are the "Westernised, licentious vamp and the chaste woman." Having risen above these stereotypes, Nadia made her mark as not only the one fighting men, kicking, punching them, a liberator of the oppressed, but also as an important figure in India's freedom struggle. The book chronicles all her films from Lal-e-Yaman in 1933 to Khiladi in 1968 and how she shot to fame with Hunterwali in 1935, a fame that further rose with Diamond Queen and Jungle Princess over the years.

Hunterwali was a major hit. After its booming success, the markets were flooded with products like Hunterwali chappals, Hunterwali bags, Hunterwali bangles, etc., notes Homi Wadia in the documentary.

"Nadia's success reached countries like the UAE, France, Greece and Italy, etc. In that way, she happens to be India's first crossover actress. But what I feel pained about is that she was always written off by the dignified film critics of her time, as she was a part of popular mass cinema, the queen of tongawallahs, panwallahs and vendors, etc. In most of her films, marriage either did not figure in her dictionary or, if mentioned to her, she would double up with laughter. Whereas off screen, she was essentially a very feminine figure," adds the author.

But did she actually fight with lions, jump from a running train without technical tricks as they were not available those days? Questions will always remain, especially in the light of allegations that Wadia picked up complete scenes from foreign films. But then every hero, or heroine, is questioned.

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