‘Fearless’ Nadia – Memories
You want to interview me? Gosh, how exciting! Where shall I begin? (Pauses.). You see, at first, I was working on stage. I was into acrobatics and dancing. One day, while on tour in Lahore, I happened to meet a theatre manager Mr. Kanga. He told me that I would do well in Hindi films. So when I came to Bombay he introduced me to Jamshed and Homi, of Wadia Movietone. They signed me on and that is how I got into the movies. As a result of being an acrobat, I was able to do stunt films. And I was fairly successful at it.
The first film where I played a heroine, was Hunterwali. Though I did act in two other films for Jamshed before that. They were Noor-e-Yaman and Josh-e-Wattan. In both films I played a secondary role. This was way back in 1935. I think I was about 25 years old, when I played my first major role in Hunterwali.
As a child, I was quite a tomboy, always full of mischief and often punished! After all, I was a convent girl. I loved to climb trees and do all sorts of mad things. I did my schooling in Bombay, at Clare Road Convent. I was there for eight years. All my life I have stayed in Bombay, living somewhere in Colaba.
My maiden name was Evans, Mary Evans. I cannot explain all those details now. It is such a long time ago. (She pauses but I coax her into telling us a little more.) Okay. My mother was Greek and my father was English. He was a soldier, who went to war and died very young. I was their only child. And being a soldier’s daughter I had that ‘devil may care’ attitude. I was like him, brave and bold. A harum scarum army brat! After school, I would go for dance practice. I also learnt Indian dancing (though nothing classical) and even picked up the lavni!
Having completed school, I went touring India as a dancer. As soon as I started dancing commercially, I changed my name to Nadia. Mary did not sound like a proper name for the stage. Must have something different,I felt. I also learnt to sing Indian songs. Mr. Kanga was quite tickled about my acrobatics. And especially my singing with all my bad pronunciations! In spite of my bad Hindi, Mr. Kanga felt I would make a name for myself.
Not to say that I did not know Hindi. I managed and how. Whether I had work or not, I would go every day to the studio, sit with the Munshi and he would teach me Hindi. It took me one hour every day of the month to learn a three-page dialogue. Finally, when the day arrived, I said the dialogue without a single re-take. What a lot of trouble I went through for it! If I’m not mistaken, it was for Bombaywali. Do you remember that Homi? (Her husband, Homi Wadia, seated next to her, nodded in agreement.)
Do you know how I happened to marry Homi? You see, he was the director of all my pictures, as I was working for Wadia Movietone. So while directing me, one day, he winked at me and I winked at him — through the camera! (She laughs). Remember darling? (Asking Homi.) Oh yes, it was love at first sight but it took us quite some time to get married. I got married in 1960 and I was 50 years old! Really!
I have acted in about 50 pictures. I did not have any favorite co-stars because I did not move around much. I never mixed with anyone. After shooting, I would return straight home. I never went to any parties either. I was worried about the homestead you see. I had a few friends and would only go to their parties.
My husband Homi, and his brother Jamshed, started Wadia Movietone in 1935 which closed down in 1942. That same year, Homi started Basant Pictures which he sold in 1981. In those days, I only worked with one studio. Each studio had their own set of artistes. Later on, it became free lancing. At the studio, we had our own gymnasium where I would practice with my gangsters!
These gangsters, were stunt boys and extras. I remember one Azim, who taught me sword fighting. He died a couple of years ago.
Having seen quite a few of today’s films, I have found them to be technically better than our films. The fights are also quite different, they’re more fierce and violent. I believe it is what the audiences want today. Each generation has its own style of making films. In my days, my action films were appreciated. Today, people might not like them. This generation will say that their pictures are the best, while I will say that my films were. All the films I did were talkies, but in black and white.
Stunt films were my forte and I have always done my own stunts, I was ready for it. I was never nervous to do them. I even got used to facing lions, as they got used to seeing me! There was an instance when I did feel a little nervous. I was shooting with a lioness and according to the scene, I was wounded and lying on a charpai. The lioness was to bring me some medical herbs and the leaves were tied around her neck. I laughed at the sight, but the lioness did not like my laughing at her. She kept coming closer and closer to my face, growling and pawing the ground. I called out ‘Homi’! Homi! Take her away’!
In another scene from the same film, another lioness came up and sat on my leg. She kept on licking my legs. I thought to myself, ‘That’s a nice piece of mutton’! (Laughs.) This was in Jungle Princess.
Doing my own stunts did give me quite a thrill. Though I did have quite a few accidents and broke a few bones. Once, when I was shooting with a horse, I fell with the horse and landed under it. The horse fell on my leg. I was injured and bedridden for three months. You see, I always had the habit of jumping on to the horse immediately. This I did, so as to break the fright. This was in Punjab Mail.
Even when I had a car accident in a scene, I had to drive another car for the re-take. You see, I had an accident in one scene and got fractured all over. But I insisted on driving another car.
I must tell you about this funny scene, in Bombaywali I think. I was giving a speech in the presece of a hundred extras. The people were very silent. Being a village scene, there were two cows nearby. One of the cows passed wind to a loud extent but I did not hear it. I continued with my speech and from the corner of my eye, I noticed the director giggling and everybody was laughing. Since I hadn’t heard it, I wondered what I had said that was funny.
One tremendous feat I did, was for Hunterwali. During the day, I had done my share of horse riding. For the night scene, a big mahal (palace) was erected at the studio. Both John Cavas and I climbed to the top of the mahal. I was supposed to swing from one end of the studio to the other. I did it perfectly during the rehearsals. In the take, I swung across the studio but John missed catching my legs. As a result, down I fell from the top of the studio! A Parsi gentleman came to catch me. Instead, I fell on top of him. Fortunately, I did not break any bones but I was badly bruised. My mother was so mad at me, that I never heard the last of it from her!
Once, when I was doing some outdoor shooting at a set erected at Kurla, I had to ride my horse through a ring of fire. I was not aware that the trainer had given the horse toddy and he kept rearing in the air. I found it difficult to control him. Anyway, I managed to sit on him and put on my mask. All the kids gathered to see the shot. I went through the burning ring. When I got off the horse, all the kids started laughing when I took off the mask. ‘Arre, Nadiabai, tumhare muh ko dekho’. So I checked my face. My eyelashes were burnt, my hair was singed. And the horse’s mane that had got burnt, also flew on to my face, It was a very funny sight and I really had a hearty laugh. Later, I found that they had doped the horse. They should had given me that toddy instead of the horse!
My all-time favorite film was Hunterwali because I did a lot of funny things for the film. I had to climb trees and jump around corners. I was younger then, 25 I think, so I was able to do it. Another picture of mine which I liked very much, was Diamond Queen. Of course I liked all my pictures because I put my heart and soul into all of them.
Among the heroes, I did not have much of a choice because each studio had their own set-up. Mansoor was my first hero. Then John Cavas came along. He was my hero in all my pictures. The only exception was Muqabla, where Yakub was my hero. He’s dead now. And no, he isn’t Dilip Kumar’s brother. Besides that I never knew any other heroes. I also worked in two outside pictures, both directed by Aspi Irani.
During my days, I did not face any resentment from any other heroines because we all had our own type of films. While my forte was action and stunt films, theirs was emotion. I used to ride horses without saddles and even ride standing on a horse. You see, when I was a little girl I learnt horse riding from my uncle in Peshawar. He was a vet in the military. So I had learnt riding before going on stage, long before I became a trapeze artiste and dancer. Anyway, we did not have any competition, and no other actress of my time ever did her own stunts. In any case, even if they did envy me, it was only natural. It happens in all walks of life and in every profession.
Some of today’s heroines do their own stunts and I find it quite remarkable. Rekha did it in Khoon Bhari Maang. And of course that Malini girl, who’s she Homi? (Homi answers.) Yes, Hema Malini. They can’t afford to do all their stunts because of the number of assignments they have. They are also very good actresses. That’s why I cannot compare myself with them. I have done my lot and I am happy with it.
Though all my films were stunt films, I did do a film called Mauj. I played a secondary role to Kaushaliya. I was sari-clad and screeched and cried most of the time. Distributors began calling up Homi, demanding that my crying scenes be deleted. ‘Nadia’s not allowed to cry’, they said. So that was my only sari-clad film.
Even though I was called the Indian version of Douglas Fairbanks, I was sort of inspired by Pearl White. She used to do all those stunts. All her films were silent films. As a child, I saw most of her films and wished I could do the same. I did. Honey, I don’t recall any of her films. Ruth Rowlands was another of my favourites.
In 1983, I broke my leg. I went to the Willingdon Club to play housie. While turning around, my foot got stuck in the carpet. I fell down and broke my leg. I cannot walk without ‘Charlie’. (She picks up her walking aid.) This is my Charlie. If I lose it I call out, ‘Where’s my Charlie, where’s my Charlie?’ (Laughs along with Homi.) I did try walking without it but my doctor reprimanded me.
My last picture was Khiladi, in 1967. I played a secondary role to Uma. It did very well. In the picture, I taught young girls how to fight and fend for themselves. After completing the film, Homi advised me to give up acting. And since I did not feel like working, I decided to call it a day. So I became a full fledged housewife. I was quite dedicated to my work. My work came first, then everything else. After I retired, I continued to help Homi in his film productions.
These days, I toddle around doing things. Why just this morning, I pulled out all the old photographs. I went through all the old albums, remembering the good old days. The parties and the fun we used to have. It really brings back memories especially of my horse Nijinsky. He won several races at the derbys. Besides that, I get up every morning and exercise. Then I bathe and have a light breakfast. Then I decide what to make for lunch and dinner. I tend to the house work. When the races are on, I rush off to Poona. I go by train because air is very inconvenient. I go to the races quite often. For the Thursday races, Saturday, Sunday races, I must go!
I am quite happy at home. I wouldn’t like to do any special role. I will roll in bed only! (Laughs.) (As told to K. D’Costa in 1991).