Nadia tossed the myth of the docile heroine into the air and shot it to smithereens with her trademark hey-y-y-y. She fenced with villains atop moving trains, swung precariously from chandeliers, whipped the bad guy and did a multitude of stunts without ever resorting to a stuntman — probably because no stuntman would do half the death-defying acrobatics that Nadia specialized in.
Before she roared into movie immortality, Nadia began life as Mary Evans, born in Australia to a Greek mother and an English father. The family moved to India and Mary began her career as a salesgirl, went on to being a secretary and subsequently, a dancer. There followed a picaresque existence which included a stint in the circus. This outdoor, adventurous life stood her in good stead when she was discovered by moviemaker J B H Wadia. After giving her a few inconsequential roles, the Wadia brothers cast her in the image-defining role of Hunterwali (’35). Nadia flummoxed cynical distributors who had not subscribed to a female swashbuckler, by drawing in the crowds and earning for herself the well-deserved epithet, ‘Fearless Nadia’.
True, her Hindi was very accented: when she said `Mujhe chhod do’ (Leave me alone), she raised eyebrows at the risqué interpretation her diction imparted to it. The public however did not care — they came to be dazzled by her daredevilry and for her shorts-encased, blond, blue-eyed, white-skinned persona which a certain section found ‘sexy’. Money-spinners like Hurricane Hansa, Lootaru Lalna and Diamond Oueen followed. Though they had a superficial veneer of anti-establishment invective, it was the sheer audacity of the stunts that Nadia performed (from being caged with a lioness to jumping from dizzy heights), that made these films popular.
When the stunt genre seemed to run out of steam in the socials-obsessed 40s, Nadia tried out emotional gymnastics too in a film called Mouj. But the public could not bear to see her crying and Nadia reverted to form with Hunterwali Ki Beti (’43). It gave Nadia’s career a fresh lease of life for a few years. After this she acted sporadically till her swan song, Khilari (’68).
Nadia spent her twilight years happily married to Homi, the younger Wadia brother, and indulged her passion for race horses. In 1996, she passed gently into the good night. Fifty years after her last hit, her death was still front page news because she was truly unique. In a chauvinist country like India, Nadia had, by becoming a female stunt queen, predated the feminist movement by decades.