Nadia was born in Perth (Australia) to a British father and a Greek mother as Mary Evans. Her father, a soldier in the British army, migrated to Bombay (today’s Mumbai) when Mary was quite young. He was deputed near Peshawar where Mary grew up riding horses in the wide open plains. Later, after her father was killed in World War I, she moved back to Mumbai with her mother.
Years later, Mary learnt shorthand and typing in order to get a decent job. In her biographical documentary film, she says “I got so fat that I decided to reduce.” That led her to join dance classes with a Russian dancer Madam Astrova who was quick to spot shades of undiscovered talent in Mary and inducted her into her touring dance company. It was then that Mary decided to change her name to a more exotic ‘Nadia’. During these years Nadia learnt the art of doing cartwheels and ‘splits’ – skills that would come in very handy in the years to come.
After a short stint with the dance troupe, Nadia went and worked for Zarco circus for a while in 1930 but boredom sent her back to the stage where she made a living as a dancer and singer (with a few Hindi songs in her repertoire!). After one of her performances, she was introduced to the Wadia brothers (Jamshed and Homi) who were stalwarts of the Mumbai film industry. She was apparently asked by Jamshed as to what she could bring to the silver screen to which she replied “I’ll try anything once!”
Jamshed or JBH as he was fondly known in the film industry had always detested females being cast in submissive roles in Indian films and had always aspired to create movies that depicted women as strong and having their own will. To test Nadia’s influence on Indian audiences, he first cast her in the role of a slave in his 1933 film “Desh Deepak”. She was very well accepted by the audiences possibly because of her athletic demeanour and the fact that she was white also probably led audiences to accept her larger than life character in the film. She was soon cast in JBH’s next film Noor-e-Yaman (1935) as Princess Parizad.
Driven by her success with the audiences, JBH wrote a special script based around her persona, called “Hunterwali” depicting her as a swashbuckling, Amazonian blue-eyed blonde cracking her whip and swinging her sword and swinging on chandeliers. Success was guaranteed and success was huge. The name “Hunterwali” was to be indelibly associated with Nadia for the rest of her life.
In the 1940’s, she fell in love with Homi (the younger of the Wadia brothers). However, Homi was from a traditional Parsee family and the strict social norms of this sect disallowed Homi marrying a non-Parsee. Ultimately they got married in 1960. By then it was too late for them to have children of their own and Homi adopted Nadia’s son from a previous marriage.
Throughout the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s Nadia acted in as many as 50 to 60 action films with rather strange names like Miss Frontier Mail, Diamond Queen and Jungle Princess. She was often depicted as an extremely character who fought for the oppressed and the poor and one who could kill the strongest of villains, fighting them in desserts, jungles and even on top of trains! She was known for doing her own stunts in films and even often did the stunts for some her male co-stars too! Apparently her looks and fitness provoked a fitness craze in the country and Nadia – the fearless one – became a cult figure in the Indian cinema.
Nadia was however ignored by Indian cinema gurus and experts and she was always looked upon as a lesser thespian and more of a stunt artist. Nadia finished her last film Khiladi in 1968 and then retired gracefully; raising thoroughbred horses (including an Indian Derby winner).
“Fearless” Nadia passed away in 1995 at the age of 87.
While Bollywood forgot about Nadia, Nadia’s great grandnephew, Riyad Vinci Wadia, made a documentary about her life called Fearless: The Hunterwali Story. This documentary was shown at the 1993 Berlin International Film Festival and inspired Dorothee Wenner, a German freelance writer, and film curator, to write a book, Fearless Nadia – The true story of Bollywood’s original stunt queen, which was subsequently translated to English in 2005.