In the 1930s, the Indian movie industry was coalescing into the entertainment colossus now known as Bollywood, early talkies already featuring the massed song and dance numbers which would become its hallmark but also an admixture of hard-hitting social commentary. In this heady time of growth and experimentation, a bold, Zorro-esque figure came to dominate Indian films, a masked renegade delivering rough justice with reckless stunts. It’s hard, then, to say what’s more surprising; that this Errol Flynn-like figure was a woman, or that she was, like Flynn, an Australian.
Mary Ann Evans was born in Perth on this day in 1908, moving to India at the age of five when her father, a soldier, was posted there. After appearing in vaudeville and circus acts she achieved her film breakthrough in 1933 under the name Fearless Nadia, establishing the template of the tough, vengeful but righteous female, like a premonition of Bandit Queen Phoolan Devi. It was a type she would explore with minor variations until the late 1950s with phenomenal success, becoming India’s most popular actress of the time.
The typical Fearless Nadia character wasn’t an aggressor, but she was in no way demure and never backed down from a fight, often pausing afterwards to lecture the punch-drunk transgressor and point out how he might, in the future, mend his ways. But even before she got round to walloping baddies, Nadia’s characters stood out for their costumes: skin-tight britches cut for action, whips and masks, long boots, clinging, manly bodices. There could have been no greater contrast with the serried ranks of saried women who crowded dance spectaculars of the same films.
The documentary Fearless: The Hunterwali Story, released in 1993, reawakened interest in this Bollywood pioneer, who died in Mumbai three years later. Here’s a glimpse of Nadia in 1959’s Queen of the Circus: