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Fearless Nadia, the early talkies: Watch out for vintage posters at this auction

It’s hard to conceive of how important film posters were in the early years of Indian cinema. Until well into the 1990s, the best chance a film had of being noticed was if the makers posted small ads on the inside pages of newspapers, or pasted posters on public walls.

Every city has walls that a certain generation will forever associate with a running scroll of the latest blockbusters. What was Amitabh’s latest? Hema Malini’s? Rekha’s? You got the drift as you drove past.

And so the posters of this age contained an artistry and attention to detail that is virtually non-existent today. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the early decades of the talkies, these posters were still hand-painted. A good poster was the equivalent of today’s trailer. It could make or break a film’s first weekend.

A trove of such hand-painted posters will go under the hammer at an upcoming online Prinseps auction. Each poster has a reserve price of 20,000. Also on auction are lobby cards, and songbooks that were distributed to film audiences in theatres of the time so they could sing along to the lyrics.

All the artefacts set to go on auction are from the estate of Riyad Wadia, the grandson of Jamshed Wadia, co-founder of Wadia Movietone. This was a leading and rather revolutionary film production house based in Mumbai, then Bombay, in the 1930s.

The founding Wadias, brothers Jamshed and Homi, set up the studio in 1933, not long after India’s first talkie, Alam Ara (1931), was released. They were from the same Wadia family as the shipbuilders; their interests, however, weren’t in commerce but in fantasy. Wadia Movietone was known for mythological features, fantasies and, most notably, for giving India its first superwoman.

Wadia Movietone became defined by swashbuckling films that starred a woman, Mary Ann Evans, who was nicknamed Fearless Nadia because she whipped her opponents with riding crops, battled small battalions of men single-handedly, performed all her own stunts (and they were daring), and dressed to kill, in leather boleros, boots, face masks, and hats.

The posters contain an artistry and attention to detail that is virtually non-existent today, with carefully etched scenes of action, drama and suspense. Back then, a poster was a film’s calling card, and could make or break its first weekend.

Nadia’s first film was Hunterwali (1935), the tale of a masked princess who fights for the downtrodden. “This film brought big fame and fortune to Wadia Movietone and it was in this movie that Jonas was referred to as Fearless Nadia in the opening credits,” said film scholar and historian Amrit Gangar. “Audiences all across India gave her a thumping welcome.”

Fearless Nadia would go on to play daredevil, adventurer or vigilante in several Wadia Movietone films. Some of the posters for these films are part of this month’s auction.

“The Wadia movies often dealt with subjects such as gender inequality, illiteracy, religious intolerance and poverty in their fantasy and action films. Most of their films were way ahead of their time,” said Brijeshwari Gohil, curator of the auction and vice-president of Prinseps.

Their fantasy works had a technical expertise that was ahead of their time too and these flights of the imagination extended to the posters for these films, Gangar added.

“These posters, most made by film poster artist DG Pradhan, are a departure from the earlier text-heavy ones that didn’t use such bold colours and big illustrations,” said Gohil. Pradhan’s posters were awash in greens and oranges; they picked out dramatic scenes and recreated them. In the poster for Stunt Queen (1947), for instance, a train speeds towards Nadia as she lies prone on, and lashed to, railway tracks; to one side, she stands clearly victorious, presumably later in the film, clad in a green pantsuit, and wielding a gun.

“It is interesting to note that film poster making art of that era overlapped with the progressive art movement,” said Gohil. While artists MF Husain, SH Raza, FN Souza and others from the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group were breaking away from European style of painting in monotones and muted shades by using bright colours and bold brush strokes, film posters too were adopting the country’s new-age art narrative. “Let’s not forget that Husain too made movie posters in his early days in Mumbai,” Gohil added.

Fearless Nadia, incidentally, was a force to reckon with off-screen too, which came through in the posters and films. Born in Western Australia, she could ride horses, hunt, fish, and shoot, and grew up in the untamed North-West Frontier Province (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan). Her father, a volunteer with the British Army, died in World War 1 and, in 1928, she came to Bombay with her mother and son, Robert Jones, about whom not much is known. Here, she studied ballet.

She tried getting a job in the army, and as a salesgirl, but eventually joined her teacher’s ballet troupe, which performed for British soldiers, Indian royalty, and in small towns and villages across India. On the advice of a fortune-teller, changed her name to Nadia. In 1930, Nadia joined the Zarko Circus. She then made her way into the movies and, in 1961, married Homi Wadia.

Her great-nephew Riyad Wadia, best known for his short film BOMgAY (1996), possibly the first gay-themed movie to come out of India, also made a documentary on her titled Fearless: The Hunterwali Story (1994). She was still alive at the time. Nadia died on January 9, 1996, a day after her 88th birthday. The posters are one of the many places where she lives on.

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