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Evans, Mary Ann (Nadia) (1908–1996)

by Gail Phillips

This article was published online in 2020

'Fearless Nadia', n.d.

'Fearless Nadia', n.d.

Mary Ann ‘Nadia’ Evans (1908–1996), film actor and stuntwoman, was said to have been born on 8 January 1908 in Perth, Western Australia, only child of Scottish-born Herbert Evans, British army soldier, and his Greek-born wife, Margret, a former belly dancer. When Mary was four years old Herbert was transferred to Bombay (Mumbai), India, and the family moved with him. He was sent to the Western Front during World War I and was killed in action. Margret and Mary remained in Bombay where Margret worked as a seamstress and Mary was enrolled as a weekly boarder at the Clare Road convent school. In 1922 Margret accepted an invitation from an army friend of Herbert’s to join his family at Peshawar (later in Pakistan). Mary enjoyed the active outdoor social life of the remote army outpost, learning horse-riding, shooting, and other physical skills.

On 26 November 1926 Mary gave birth to a son. Six months later she and her mother returned to Bombay with the baby. They kept the boy’s origins secret; he was introduced variously as Evans’s brother or cousin. Evans took dance lessons with Madame Astrova, a former Russian ballerina, and later toured the country with her troupe as an acrobat, singer, and dancer. She adopted the stage name ‘Nadia.’ After a brief stint with the Zarko Circus she became a cabaret singer and dancer with another touring troupe that performed in clubs and cinemas around India. One of her patrons, a theatre manager in Lahore, put her in contact with his friend Jamshed Boman Homi Wadia (known as ‘JBH’), who owned one of Bombay’s first film studios, Wadia Movietone. Wadia recognised her skills and, after casting her in several minor roles, gave her the lead in the film that subsequently made the studio’s fortune: Hunterwali (1935). Wadia’s younger brother Homi directed the film, an action-packed adventure featuring Evans as a masked, swashbuckling heroine with a whip. The English release title was The Princess and the Hunter.

A buxom, muscular woman with shining blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes, Evans radiated strength, authority, and good humour, on screen as in life. She did all her own stunts, no matter how risky. Her European heritage and exoticism meant that she could transgress the conventional portrayal of women in Indian films as ‘vamps, virgins or victims’ (Rathi 2018). Through her, the Wadia brothers sought to Indianise Western culture by building on a foundation of familiar Indian tropes such as the virangana, a mythical masked and whip-wielding warrior queen. India was moving towards independence during this period and Evans was aware of the political as well as the feminist subtext of her films. She stated: ‘In all the pictures there was a propaganda message, something to fight for, for example, for people to educate themselves or to become a strong nation’ (Gandhy and Thomas 1991, 114). Thus, the film Lutaru Lalna (1938) dealt with Hindu–Muslim unity, Punjab Mail (1939) with the injustices of the caste system, and Bambaiwali (1941) encouraged women in a small town to rise up against patriarchy.

Between 1935 and 1968 the Wadia brothers with Evans made thirty-eight films and ‘fearless Nadia’ became a household name in India and among the Indian diaspora. Evans’s working relationship with Homi developed into a long affair that had to remain secret because of his family’s disapproval. However, after the death of the Wadia family matriarch, they married in 1960. Nadia Wadia had retired the year before, returning to the screen for a single appearance in 1968. In retirement she took up horse breeding, winning the Indian Derby with Nijinski in 1967. A retrospective film festival held in Bombay in 1993 and a documentary, Fearless: The Hunterwali Story, made by her great-nephew, Riyad Vinci Wadia, prompted a resurgence of interest in her life and films. She was discovered in the country of her birth when Fearless was shown at film festivals in Melbourne and Sydney in 1994. Survived by her husband, she died in Bombay on 9 January 1996. In 2011 the Australia India Institute, Melbourne, introduced the Fearless Nadia Occasional Papers, a series of original essays focusing on various aspects of the relationship between India and Australia.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Fearless: The Hunterwali Story. Film. Directed by Riyad Vinci Wadia. Bombay: Wadia Movietone, 1993
  • Gandhy, Behroze, and Rosie Thomas. ‘Three Indian Film Stars.’ In Stardom: Industry of Desire, edited by Christine Gledhill, 107–31. London: Routledge, 1991
  • Rathi, Nandini. ‘Who Was Fearless Nadia?’ The Indian Express, 8 January 2018. Accessed 14 November 2019. https://indianexpress.com/article/entertainment/bollywood/fearless-nadia-movies-life-photos-videos-5015582/. Copy held on ADB file
  • Thomas, Rosie. Bombay before Bollywood: Film City Fantasies. Albany, New York: SUNY Press, 2013
  • Wenner, Dorothee. Fearless Nadia: The True Story of Bollywood's Original Stunt Queen. Translated by Rebecca Morrison. New Delhi: Penguin Books, 2005

Additional Resources

Citation details

Gail Phillips, 'Evans, Mary Ann (Nadia) (1908–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/evans-mary-ann-nadia-29918/text37038, published online 2020, accessed online 10 May 2021.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2021

'Fearless Nadia', n.d.

'Fearless Nadia', n.d.

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Wadia, Nadia
  • Fearless Nadia
Birth

8 January 1908
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Death

9 January 1996
Bombay, Maharashtra, India

Cause of Death

unknown

Cultural Heritage
Religious Influence
Occupation