Fearless Nadia: First Action Queen of Bollywood

October 2, 2021

On January 8, 1910, Mary Ann Evans was born in Perth, Australia to Scottish father Herbert Evans and ‘mother Margaret…a Greek immigrant’ and former belly-dancer (Sydney Morning Herald, (NSW Australia) Jan 13, 1996).’ Few would have suspected then, that this blue-eyed blonde child would one day become internationally known movie star, ‘Fearless Nadia.’ Evans was destined to become the original Bollywood stuntwoman of the 1930s and 1940s. Yet aside from a singular film career the available accounts on Evans’ life also unintentionally report on the subtle of ways in which racism can evade or obfuscate fundamental aspects of any biographical account. In what follows see if you can reason out—from what official sources report–the fundamental missing center piece of her life.

Sometime between 1911-1912, Herbert Evans, a British army soldier, was posted to Bombay. In 1913, the family moved to Elephanta Caves Island in Mumbai Harbor, just east of Bombay. It is said that from a very young age Mary wanted to be a singer and dancer so she learned Scottish dances from her father and Greek songs from her mother.

In 1915, during World War 1 Herbert Evans was killed in France. Margaret and Mary remained in Bombay. Margaret worked as a seamstress while Mary was enrolled as a weekly boarder at the Clare Road Convent School. The Australian Dictionary of Biography reports, ‘In 1922, Margaret accepted an invitation from an army friend of Herbert Evans to join his family at Peshawar (later in Pakistan). While at Peshawar Mary fully enjoyed the active outdoor social life of the remote army post, learning horse-back riding, hunting, fishing, shooting, and other physical skills.’ In 1928, Mary returned to Bombay with her mother and a son, Robert Jones, about whom not much is known.

Not long after her arrival Mary joined Russian dancer Madame Astrova’s touring dance troupe, just then in Bombay. In 1930, Mary developed an act for the Zarko Circus and toured India as, what was then called, a ‘Theatre Variety Artiste.’

At some point during this period of her life Mary met a fortune teller. This mystic told Mary that a successful career lay ahead but that she would have to change her name starting with the letter ‘N.’ Mary chose the name ‘Nadia’ because she thought it was exotic sounding.  So it came to pass that while touring with the circus that Mary took the stage-name, ‘Fearless Nadia.’ The young performer deserved this new name because aside from her horse riding stunts she also soon mastered the art of cartwheels, splits and other such acrobatic skills.

In 1934, Nadia was introduced to brothers Jamshed ‘J. B. H.’ Wadia (1901-1986) and Homi Wadia (1911-2004). Established in 1933, the Wadia brothers were the owners/producers of Wadia Movietone a Bombay film production company and studio. Wadia Movietone soon developed a reputation for their production of stunt, action, fantasy and mythological films. Initially Evans was cast in cameos before the brothers struck upon the winning film formula: Fearless Nadia, action heroine!

This professional transformation took place in 1935. J.B.H. Wadia wrote a screenplay starring Nadia, entitled ‘Hunterwali,’ e.g. ‘The Lady With the Whip,’ a masked, cloaked adventuress. Wadia was counting on the sheer novelty of casting an exotic, fair-skinned blonde in an Hindi language action movie. Nadia’s role cast her ‘performing Douglas Fairbank’s acrobatic feats, swinging from chandeliers, expertly fencing and taking a bull-whip to villains.’ It became the biggest-grossing picture in Indian film history to that time and launched Nadia as the star of a new genre of stunt films.

Fearless Nadia blazed onto the screen in leather shorts, a mask, cape, always performing all of her own stunts. Over the years, she sprang from speeding trains, jumped into waterfalls, ran across the roofs of train carriages at the drop of a hat, jumped onto horseback from any number of perilous locations and even tamed lions. Nadia, in her on-screen persona ‘…lived among wild lions and routinely lifted men and flung them like a wrestler. Above all, she acquired fame as a woman who cracked the whip. She did all this on her own, without any safety measures and health insurance. A messiah-like figure unfailingly coming to the rescue of the downtrodden and weak, Fearless Nadia was the female Robin Hood of her time (The Tropic Trapeze: Circus in Colonial India Anirban Ghosh 2014 Ph.D. dissertation).’

Nadia’s trade-mark soon became a series of ‘hey! hey! hey! shouts as she (with one arm raised into the air) fearlessly attacked the villain or gang of thugs. Fearless Nadia’s dynamic screen presence cannot be over emphasized. In 1980, Girish Karnad (1938-2019) noted Indian actor, film director, writer, and playwright recalled that: ‘The single most memorable sound of my childhood was the clarion call of  ‘Hey-y-y’ as Fearless Nadia, regal upon her horse, her hand raised defiantly in the air, rode down upon the bad guys. To school kids of the mid-forties Fearless Nadia meant courage strength and idealism.’ 

As ‘Fearless Nadia,’ Mary Evans was and remains continually compared to American action stars Douglas Fairbanks (1883-1939) and Pauline Fay White (1889-1938). While the swashbuckling Fairbanks may need no introduction White is perhaps not as familiar. White was an American stage and film actress who today is most remembered for her extremely popular silent serials. Soon dubbed the ‘Queen of the Serials’ White was the first American actress noted for doing the majority of her own stunts, most notably in the film serial ‘The Perils of Pauline (1914).’ From that moment onward White was always cast as the plucky onscreen heroine. White became an exceedingly popular star given that her roles directly contrasted those of the era’s popularized archetypal ingénue.

By all accounts daredevil stunts were also the enduring basis for Margaret Evans popularity in Bollywood film history. Yet Evans’ screen image was not a mere copying of either Fairbanks or White.  Fearless Nadia exploded onto the screen at a critical moment in modern Indian history. As a  modern female Nadia was presented as a complex individual. The demands of modern life in India and the enduring values of a traditional woman’s role were fused—after an exceedingly complex matter—in one film after the next. For this aspect of Evans’ evolving screen person, Rosie Thomas’ essay, ‘Not Quite (Pearl) White: Fearless Nadia, Queen of the Stunts,’ in ‘Bollywood: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens,’ edited by Raminder Kaur and Ajay J. Sinha is especially helpful (New Delhi: Sage Pubs India, 2005).’

In the next 25 years, Evans made more than 55 films establishing a unique place for herself in Indian cinema (Sydney Morning Herald Jan 13, 1996). Nadia’s most notable films include Hunterwali (1935), Jungle Princess (1942) Stunt Queen (1947) and Tigress (1948). In 1943, Nadia appeared in Homi Wadia's sequel, Daughter of Hunterwali, which was destined to be her most famous film. As all public sources report this screen persona made Mary Evans an international action star. In 1956, Nadia Evans retired from films. In 1961 Nadia married her long-time producer-director Homi Wadia. On January 6, 1996, Mary Ann Evans died in the Cumballa Hill Hospital, in Bombay.

Now, have you noticed? I offer very little about Nadia’s mother, Margaret Evans. That is due to the fact that next to nothing about this woman is available in any of the source material I was able to find. Curiously, virtually all the information we have on Margaret Evans are single word descriptions or at most snippets of info such as ‘a Greek immigrant;’ ‘a belly-dancer;’ ‘she taught her daughter to sing Greek songs.’

At the time of Herbert Evans’ death Margaret was forced to find work in Bombay. While sources vary considerably concerning the exact date of Herbert Evans’ death, if we accept 1914 as the year of his death, then his daughter was only 4 or 5 years old. Consequently, for good or ill, it was Margaret Evans who was the dominant parental influence in her daughter’s life.

With the return of Margaret and Mary to Bombay who do you think took care of Mary’s mysterious son, Robert Jones?  I say this since all accounts report on the fact that this was an especially difficult time in Mary Evans life since she could not initially find a job? So, who do you think took care of young Robert Jones while Mary was out looking for work? And once again, when Mary finally got a job with a ballet troupe and then latter Zarko’s Circus who cared for young Robert? Yet all the written source material I’ve located and/or the YouTube programs on Nadia stop any and all references to Margaret Evans after the 1922 invitation to Peshawar. Why?

All the Anglo-news accounts, encyclopedia entries, academic musings, YouTube accounts and/or Indian Cinema histories basically ignore this woman. In the YouTube review, ‘The badass actress you've never heard of | Fearless Nadia | Film History | Tea Break Film Reviews’ we do see an old photograph of Margaret Evans. But, even this source offers no other information on Mrs. Evans. So, what are we to think?

No one will be Greek for us. How Greeks in the diaspora have changed and continue to transform the world around them is little studied. Assessing Nadia’s role in the history of Bollywood is not restricted to a daredevil persona. Rather Fearless Nadia’s screen adventures helped to define the means by which the women (and men) of India could begin to understand the complexities of transformations taking place in their daily lives.


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