The woman with the whip is one of the most enduring images in the history of Indian cinema. The unorthodox character that slashes through gender norms has been portrayed by several actresses down the decades, but few have matched the pizzazz of Nadia.

Released in 1935; featuring Nadia in the first of many roles as a masked crusader.
Released in 1935; featuring Nadia in the first of many roles as a masked crusader.

Nadia Wadia died a day after her 88th birthday on January 9, 1996, of a heart attack. The stunt film star passed away in the city that had been her home since she was four. She was born Mary Evans, and arrived in the metropolis with her Greek mother and her Scottish father, who was a volunteer with the British army. Mary Evans learnt horseback riding, ballet dancing, shooting, hunting, and acrobatics during her peripatetic formative years, skills that came handy when she later became the face of the light-hearted cinematic adventures produced by Wadia Movietone. Set up by the brothers Jamshed and Homi, the studio rolled out fantasy dramas, mythologicals, action films and stunt-heavy thrillers at its peak in the 1930 and ’40s. Nadia later married Homi Wadia in 1961.

Nadia was first introduced in small roles in Desh Deepak (1934) and Noor-e-Yaman (1934) before being launched as a heroine in Hunterwali (1935). In her excellent biography Fearless Nadia The True Story of Bollywood’s Original Stunt Queen, German film scholar Dorothee Wenner writes, “JBH Wadia’s idea of making a stunt queen sprung from his old admiration for American serial heroines such as Pearl White, Helen Homes, Ruth Holland, Grace Canard and Marie Walcamp. However, for the story of Hunterwali, he 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.”

Hunterwali is the first of many movies that cast Nadia as fearless (a label bestowed on her by Homi Wadia after she performed her own stunts in the movie), good-hearted, generous and a proto-nationalist. The latter quality perhaps helped Indian audiences warm to her blond hair, athletic body and decidedly unfeminine antics. Wenner writes, “Nadia, who fights like a man on-screen and is often more scantily attired than most of her colleagues, doesn’t, quite simply, play the game. Neither in Hunterwali nor in her numerous later roles does she epitomize the dreamy-lady type, the sort that every male viewer immediately wants to fetch from their cinema to their stove at home. ”

Had she been parked by a stove, Nadia would have flung it out of the window. Here is a selection of posters and stills from some of the feminist icon’s best-known films for Wadia Movietone.

Released in 1938; about a princess who leads a double life as a bandit.
Released in 1938; about a princess who leads a double life as a bandit.
In ‘Punjab Mail’, from 1939, Nadia is back as a masked avenger.
In ‘Punjab Mail’, from 1939, Nadia is back as a masked avenger.
In ‘Diamond Queen’ from 1934, Nadia teams up with a dacoit to free Diamond Town from an usurper.
In ‘Diamond Queen’ from 1934, Nadia teams up with a dacoit to free Diamond Town from an usurper.
Released in 1941, and starring Nadia alongside her movie pet, the German Shepherd Gunboat.
Released in 1941, and starring Nadia alongside her movie pet, the German Shepherd Gunboat.
Mary Wadia with Homi Wadia and Nadira (right).
Mary Wadia with Homi Wadia and Nadira (right).

(All photos courtesy Wadia Movietone.)