Fearless: The Hunterwali Story

(Riyard Vinci Wadia, India, 1993)


Fearless: The Hunterwali Story is a documentary about the Indian film star Mary Evans-Wadia, made by her grandnephew. She was born in Perth, but her life story has little to do with Australia. In 1935, when she was twenty-five, she began appearing in Indian films. Her breakthrough success was the 1935 film Hunterwali, which means “lady with a whip”. Mary quickly became known to her fans as Fearless Nadia. In one colourful scenario after another, she fought bad guys en masse with her bare hands, leapt from moving trains to moving cars, fell down waterfalls, swung on ropes, and cracked her famous whip after exclaiming: “Hey!”

Speaking in the present day as a woman in her ’80s, Nadia is a jolly soul who makes pretty much the same statement about every facet of her screen career. “They asked me to jump off a building, and I said oh no, and they repeated you must jump off a building, so I thought ‘I’ll try anything once’ so I just did it!” It was all a game to her then, and still seems so. This documentary buffers Nadia with other experts – famous Indian film directors, journalists, her contemporary actors – to say what she does not: that her films were a clever form of popular art, drawing from Hollywood models but customising them in a specifically Indian way.

Unquestionably one of the most fascinating aspects of Nadia’s screen career was her body image. Nadia, looking back, is rather more frank about this aspect than some reviewers of the film. “I was supple,” she says, “in spite of being fat.” And Nadia, swinging her fists, jumping off buildings and wearing skimpy costumes, is indeed a hefty woman. It is surprising, a bit confronting for a moment, and soon pretty exhilarating to see a physical screen heroine like this, who is absolutely not built like Sigourney Weaver or Jamie Lee Curtis or even Jane Russell.

Apart from the stunts, there was also a romantic element to Nadia’s screen roles, although we don’t see much of it in this doco. The narrator tells us near the end that her persona was a mix of “self mockery, agility and unabashed sexuality”. As we see her forcefully kiss a few chaps, the narrator adds that she was “voluptuous, yet prim”. It’s these kinds of kinky, paradoxical contrasts – voluptuous yet prim, a dominatrix yet sweet and gentle – that clearly lie at the heart of Nadia’s fame with popular audiences. Indeed, I think you can find such contrasts in a lot of pop culture’s biggest stars the world over.

This is the kind of documentary which goes down perfectly at film festivals. It has a touch of exoticism, a touch of humour, a touch of political interest, but basically it’s not too demanding. In Australia, the Sydney and Melbourne Film Festivals are stuffed with docos of this type – films about ancient all-girl swing bands, colourful social reformers, or crusty Hollywood film director mavericks. Sometimes these docos show up on television months later. They work better there, or in the middle of a Film Festival crush, than when they stand on their own as a fully-fledged feature attractions. Fearless: The Hunterwali Story is basically a television doco. It has all the clichés of a That’s Entertainment-type film, with the narrator Shobha De walking onto abandoned movie sets, or twisting around in her movie star’s deck chair, to introduce the next phase of Nadia’s career.

What’s really disappointing about this tele-doco format, though, is that it just never gives us enough of what we want to see. We get a lightning speed barrage of clips from many of Nadia’s movies. They are cut into little groups: Nadia boxing, Nadia leaping, Nadia dancing, and so forth. Only the clips that show her about to cop a severe physical injury are ever repeated for us. We never get a proper, holistic sense of what these films of the ’30s and ’40s were like – what the plots were, what the balance was of drama to stunts, how the singing and dancing fitted in, all of that. As an anthology film about popular Indian cinema – which looks like a boundlessly interesting topic – Fearless is not as good as Krishna Shah’s hypnotic compilation Cinema Cinema (1979) which occasionally comes around on SBS.

For some Australian viewers, Fearless will relate more to an Australian documentary called Don’t Call Me Girlie (1985). That, too, was a project which set out to rehabilitate the lost women stars of an earlier period in film history, to show us some exemplary female behaviour that looks so bold and striking to us now. Both these docos present their women subjects as brave, resistant, even transgressive figures in the context of a rigid, patriarchal dominant culture. This sort of depiction is a kind of feminist melodrama: the movies back then were bad, but the some of the women in them were good, feisty role models. Whenever I encounter this argument, at least when its presented that baldly, I get very uncomfortable. I keep thinking that the relations between women’s roles, mainstream cinema and popular culture in any given period have to be a bit more complex than that. Wasn’t there something in the culture of the time that encouraged these interesting displays of spectacular women on top?

I’ve noticed, particularly in the Film Festival context, that audiences generally react to docos like Fearless or Don’t Call Me Girlie in two main ways. These reactions can be very simply described. The crowd laughs at all the cornball stuff that characterises old, formulaic movies, and then cheers the heroine every time she wallops somebody, gives out a war cry, or makes a rousing statement like the one Nadia makes in one of her classics: “If India is to be free, its women must have freedom first!” By presenting these popular Indian films of another era in the fragmented, piecemeal way I described, this documentary does not really allow us to respond any other way. It doesn’t let us get a fuller, more rounded understanding of these films and their social context. We are told in Fearless that Nadia was “the earliest feminist in Indian films”, and that “there hasn’t been another like her since”. I’d be more willing to actually believe this if I had been given just a little more info about Indian cinema, not to mention Indian feminism.

But one thing I did learn from this film is how certain famous Indian movie genres of olden days were referred to. What Fearless Nadia did in the ’30s and ’40s were known as “stunt pictures”. This genre is not the same, in India, as the “action film”, which emerged in the ’60s and ’70s, and included urban crime dramas amongst other things. In between stunt pictures and action films, a genre began in the ’50s called the “social film”, films that took on social topics in a self-consciously educative and reformist spirit. I guess this trend is somewhat similar to one that happened at roughly the same time in America, where films like Gentleman’s Agreement (Elia Kazan, 1947) and Knock on Any Door (Nicholas Ray, 1949) dramatised issues like anti-Semitism and juvenile delinquency, often in a very preachy, heavy-handed way.

In America the tradition of social realism, of social message films, has always had a very elevated, very snobby cultural place – whether it deserved it or not. In America, as in Australia, it’s the popular entertainment films that come packaged in genres and formulas; each social realist film is supposedly unique, above genre. In India, at least if this doco is anything to go by, the respective genres are accorded a rather more equal place. The mark that social-message pictures are considered a genre like any other is that they are commonly referred to as "socials" – socials, like Westerns or thrillers or musicals. I intend to adopt this fine term and use it as often as possible in daily conversation from now on. When people ask what I think of Quiz Show (Robert Redford, 1994) or Blue Sky (Tony Richardson, 1994), I’ll reply, “Oh, you know, they’re run-of-the-mill socials”.

© Adrian Martin April 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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