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28.02.2017

When my brother and I were little, our parents bundled us into their jalopy every Christmas to head to Uncle Homi and Aunty Mary's annual bash at their Juhu “shack,” where we would find presents under their tree. My fuzzy memories of the time are full of lights, music and laughter. Aunty Mary’s son, Uncle Bob, was my father’s long time friend from his school cricket team. He and his wife, Aunty Liz, were the first friends to whom my father introduced my mother. In the way that is so habitual to us, my parents were adopted into the extended family. So Homi and Mary Wadia were Uncle and Aunty to my parents, and also to us. 

This inclusion also manifested itself as a standing invitation to watch the first day first show every Friday at Basant Cinema in Chembur, close to our home. We’d sit in the last row of the stalls, reserved for us due to Mary’s restricted mobilityA1 samosas, a thing of joy even back then, were delivered to our seats. Basant was your quintessential Mumbai suburban single screen. Its satin curtains would rise before each show; the Films Division documentary would play at the start, largely ignored by audiences walking in and out with food until the real show began. Sometimes the movie was followed up by tea at the Wadias flat in the building next door. 

Occasionally, we would watch Aunty Mary's films in the preview theatre at Basant Studio, next door to the Cinema. Fearless Nadia, to my preteen gaze, bore little resemblance to the be-ringed, beautifully scented, even cuddly Aunty Mary who dispensed warm hugs and betrayed no tendencies to jump atop moving trains, ride horses, or punch the daylights out of villains. I watched in wide-eyed fascination nonetheless, even turning a couple of times to ask her, in disbelief, ‘Is that really you?’

Occasionally, we would watch Aunty Mary's films in the preview theatre at Basant Studio, next door to the Cinema. Fearless Nadia, to my preteen gaze, bore little resemblance to the be-ringed, beautifully scented, even cuddly Aunty Mary who dispensed warm hugs and betrayed no tendencies to jump atop moving trains, ride horses, or punch the daylights out of villains.

Uncle Homi, the film director and producer who made many of Aunty Mary’s Fearless Nadia films, owned both Basant Cinema and Basant Studio. As my mother tells it, they became members of the local golf club because it was the only place that had a telephone they could use in Chembur; their own home was in Colaba. The suburb has a glorious place in Hindi movie history, home to many early movie stars and their studios. By the 1980s, though, it was already being called Bombay’s gas chamber. Its few talkies were not widely admired; Basant was perhaps recognized as the most 'decent,' family-friendly one. 

As I entered high school, there was a certain glamour in telling my friends that my parents could phone the manager at a movie theatre, who’d hold tickets without requiring us to queue up. As Aunty Mary’s mobility grew more and more restricted, though, I saw less of the Wadias -- they stopped coming to Chembur, and I only met them infrequently at the Colaba home.

It took me years before I recognised the privilege I had been granted as a child to watch Hunterwali and Diamond Queen with Fearless Nadia herself. Almost all the characters she played undid the stereotyping of women as victims in need of rescue - a staple of mainstream Hindi cinema in the 1980s. I have little memory of Aunty Mary’s reactions to these damsels in distress we watched together; what I do remember is that Fearless Nadia was cathartic for me, in ways that I could not express back then.   

This last weekend, my partner and I got into an autorickshaw to see a first day late night show of Rangoon, and asked to go to ‘Basant Talkies’. That theatre no longer exists, of course. It is now a multiplex, but its past and its absent presence continues to mark this place. 

Rangoon’s Miss Julia bears only a faint resemblance to Fearless Nadia,  though Kangana Ranaut herself has made many interesting films that challenge those 1980s and ‘90s stereotypes. But just sitting there in that irrevocably changed space, watching the stunts and costumes pay tribute to the sheer joy and exuberance of Fearless Nadia, was a reminder that all representation matters: and that when women push the boundaries, they transform so much more than themselves

Shilpa Phadke teaches at the School of Media and Cultural Studies, TISS, Mumbai. She is the author, with Sameera Khan and Shilpa Ranade, of ‘Why Loiter? Women and Risk On Mumbai Streets.’

Image credit: Alchetron

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