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“Unquestionably dated, yet still a pioneer,”

frontiermailIt has now been more than eighty years since this was released. It’s important to bear this in mind, because what you have here, is very much a product of its time and place – 1936 and Bollywood, respectively. That said, it possesses a far feistier heroine than anything coming out of Hollywood at that point. Indeed, you’d probably have to wait over 35 years, until Pam Grier showed up in the seventies, to find someone comparable to the characters portrayed by an Australian actress, known in India as “Fearless Nadia”. There’s more info on Fearless Nadia elsewhere, and you might want to start there, since background is likely near-essential to appreciating her movies.

This entry has her playing Savita, the daughter of a station master who is accused of murdering his deputy, a crime actually carried out by a gang of railway robbers that have been terrorizing the area, under their anonymous master, “Signal X”. Savita seeks to clear her father’s name, initially with the help of an informant inside the gang, who had been helped by the station master. But even after Signal X kills the informant, she continues to investigate them, seeking to expose his identity. Turns out the plan is to destroy the railway network’s reputation on behalf of an airline company. This involves a terrorist campaign, including blowing up bridges and deliberately causing train crashes, and Savita is the only person who can stop him.

Let’s be clear. The fights here are awful. My daughter and her friend used to make little films in our garage when they were early teenagers. They had better brawls. It appears the sole guidance offered by the director was, “Okay, look like you’re fighting. Action!” The results resemble a drunken shoving match at a wedding more than anything. Still… For there’s one sequence where Nadia and the rest of the cast are doing it on top of a moving train, and you know it’s not doubles, green-screen or CGI. There, I don’t care what you’re doing, because I would be desperately clinging onto any relatively-fixed point. There might also be whimpering involved. This cheerful and complete disregard for personal safety, along with some of the slapstick elements, feels inspired by the silent works of Harold Lloyd, etc.

This is a real hodge-podge with no consistent tone. Action rubs shoulders with romance, and drama with juvenile comedy. There’s a reason one supporting character is listed in the credits as “champion banana eater”, and I didn’t even mention the entirely gratuitous sequence of Savita weightlifting. At 143 minutes, it’s likely a good half-hour too long; interesting to see, both in that and the shoehorning in of musical numbers, elements that remain common to many contemporary Bollywood films. Yet, once your modern eyes adapt a bit to the approach, it remains entertaining, and remarkably forward-thinking. Virtually the only competent member of Signal X’s gang, Gulab (Gulshan), is also a woman, and while Savita does have a romantic interest, it’s handled well; she’s clearly more than his equal.

You could well argue that portrayals of women in Indian cinema have significantly regressed since this. Although the action elements do leave something to be desired for 21st-century viewers, and it all looks rather naive nowadays, that doesn’t detract from being decades ahead of its time.

Dir: Homi Wadia
Star: “Fearless Nadia”, Sayani Atish, Sardar Mansur, Gulshan

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