Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Hunterwali Nadia

Much before movies with sound became the norm action movies were very much part of the silent era. As the saying goes, action speaks louder than words. But if there is someone best remembered for thrilling and awe-inspiring action scenes in early Indian cinema, it was Mary Ann Evans, better known as Fearless Nadia.

Born in 1910 in Perth, Australia to Scotsman Herbert Evans and Margaret, she spent her early years in Peshawar where she learnt to hunt, fish and shoot.


But before she became an action star, Mary Evans performed in Zacko’s Russian Circus. Later, she joined Madame Astrova’s ballet group which was touring the Asian subcontinent, doing live shows between silent films for British and Indian troops. She changed her name to Nadia after being advised by a fortuneteller. And ‘Fearless Nadia’ was a carry forward from her days as a circus acrobat.


Fearless Nadia burst onto the Indian screen in the 1930s brandishing whips, swords, guns and sometimes battling villains with her bare hands.


Her career in Hindi movies began as a chorus girl in a Wadia Movietone film. But the movie that launched her career in Hindi films was the 1935 stunt movie Hunterwali starring herself as a brave princess. Portrayed as ‘the protector of the poor and punisher of evildoers’ she was presented to the public as Fearless Nadia, a name that stuck to her for the rest of her film career. Much to the acclaim of audiences, as a masked heroine she battled soldiers, rode horses, jumped over a moving cart, fought with the bad guys on the roof of a train, all to defeat the villain. There was also a rare scene in Hunterwali of Nadia bathing nude in the river, something that was far ahead of its time but was cleared by the British censors.


With Hunterwali a great success, Wadia Movietone signed her up for more movies of a similar genre, some of the notable ones being Miss Frontier Mail (1936), Hurricane Hansa (1937), Lutaru Lalna (1938), Punjab Mail (1939) and Diamond Queen (1940). These movies not only enthralled the audiences but also changed the image of a woman on the screen. As a blonde, blue-eyed girl with Indian names such as Madhuri (Hunterwali), Savita (Miss Frontier Mail) and Madhurika (Diamond Queen), she championed the common man’s cause and fought for women’s rights, something unheard of and unseen in those pre-independence days. In Diamond Queen, she echoed this sentiment with the dialogue, ‘If India is to be free, women must be given their freedom. If you try and stop them, you’ll face the consequences'.


In an era when stunt doubles were unheard of, she used to perform the stunts herself. Many a time, she performed stunts that men were afraid of doing. And most of these stunts were shown as performed, without the use of trick photography. These dare-devil acts characterized her own brave and carefree spirit.


Her usual co-stars in these films were Master Mohammed, Atish Sayani, John Cawas, Boman Shroff, Jaidev (who later on went on to become a music composer), and a horse named Punjab ka beta. Whilst Mohammed played the role of an elder to Nadia, Atish Sayani was the villain, Jaidev in a supporting role and Boman Shroff or John Cawas played the hero and her love interest. But her real love interest in life was her director Homi Wadia whom she married in 1959 after a long-standing relationship.


After starring in more than 50 films she retired and, in true Fearless Nadia style, she took to breeding racehorses.


She passed away in 1996, her later years spent enjoying domestic life.

Saturday, July 25, 2020

Bombay Bhel Puri

When one travels outside Mumbai there is a chance that one may come across a name on a food stall that reads “Bombay Bhel Puri”. Much before Vada Pav became the signature snack of Mumbai, Bhel Puri, or just called bhel was the chaat of choice for Bombayites. It was the go-to snack when outing at a park or beach. The multitude of people eating bhel at Girguam Chowpatty and Juhu beaches are a testimony to this. Over the years many streets in the city had their own bhelwala vending this chaat under a shady tree or a prime corner. Such was the popularity of Bhel Puri in Bombay that the name of the city got associated with it.

The word ‘Chaat’ is derived from the Hindi verb ‘Chaatna’, meaning to lick. And this chaat, like Mumbai’s diverse potpourri of immigrants from all over India, is a mixture of different ingredients, flavours and textures.

One of the earliest vendors of Bhel Puri in Bombay was Vithal Khadawala who came to this city from Surat in 1875, and sold bhel under a tree opposite New Empire Cinema near Victoria Terminus (now CSMT). He operated from there for many years until he was evicted by the Municipal Corporation in 1939, prompting him to move to a rented shop in the vicinity and start his own restaurant, eponymously called Vithal Bhelwala. Whilst Vithal Bhelwala is presently closed, one can sample Vithal’s Bhel next door at the Vithal’s Family Restaurant and Bar run by his descendants.

But, like other chaats, Bhel Puri is best enjoyed at a roadside stall. Besides eating it, the other joy comes from watching the vendor put it together in a paper cone made from pages of discarded magazines. The main ingredient is puffed rice to which he adds sev, crushed puris, diced onions, chopped boiled potatoes, sweet and spicy chutneys, all of which he mixes with a few firm twists of his hand before topping it off with a squeeze of lime, some more sev and finally coriander. Finely diced green mango is a welcome addition. And the way to eat is not with a spoon, but with a puri. This mixture tastes crunchy, soft, sweet, sour, and spicy all in the same bite creating a fusion of flavours in the mouth, and sometimes tears in the eyes which is quickly remedied with a handful of ‘sev-kurmura’ generously dispensed by the bhelwala.

Such are the emotions attached to this chaat that many people prefer to have it from a particular bhelwala, swearing that his bhel is the best in town. But no matter where you have it, this is one snack mixture that will always be connected to the soul of cosmopolitan Mumbai.

Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Raj Bhavans of Bombay

Raj Bhavans of Bombay

Many Mumbaikars as well as visitors to Mumbai have not visited a charming but grand colonial bungalow in a very scenic location, in the midst of flora and fauna, and surrounded by the sea on three sides. Yes, that’s Mumbai’s Raj Bhavan and it is open to visitors who need to take an early morning guided tour to see around this beautiful property.

The present Raj Bhavan, the official residence of the Governor of Maharashtra is situated at Malabar point, the tip of the Malabar Hill gradient. But in the last 355 years of Mumbai’s history, this is the fourth location on which the Governor’s residence stands.

When Humphrey Cooke became the first governor of the islands of Bombay in 1665, there was no residence officially marked for use by the governor. There existed a Government House which the Portuguese called the Manor House, but in 1665 this building was in a bad shape having been burnt down earlier by the Dutch and the British when they invaded the Portuguese held islands of Bombaim. Subsequently, this building, situated behind the Asiatic Society building in Fort was repaired, fortified and renamed Bombay Castle. It became the official residence of the English Governors of Bombay from 1674 onwards.

In 1757, the government of the day purchased John Spencer’s House at Apollo Street (now Bombay Samachar Marg) for use by the Governor, and renamed it New House. With the passage of time, as Bombay began to grow and the heart of the city, Fort became congested, Governor William Hornby preferring  “the climes at the occasional hot weather residence at Parell”, shifted residence there. However, the administration continued to function from New House for a few more decades before shifting to Parel. New House still stands, now occupied by many commercial firms, making it one of the oldest standing buildings in Mumbai.

In 1827, the Government House during the tenure of Sir John Malcolm moved entirely to Parel. This grand colonial building surrounded by gardens in the peace and quiet of an idyllic ‘suburb’ of Bombay was aptly called Sans Pareil, meaning without peer or beyond compare. It was indeed a grand mansion where “melody and mellifluous voices filled the Durbar Hall during gala evenings when china and crystal would glitter under the chandeliers in the Banquet Hall”. Many memorable events in Bombay’s colonial history took place at Sans Pareil. It was here that Governor Jonathan Duncan held a banquet in 1804 to launch The Literary Society of Bombay which is now known as the Asiatic Society.  It was in this building that the future King-Emperor Edward VII and the last Czar of Russia, Nicholas II were entertained when they visited Bombay. Sadly, with the mills coming up in and around Parel in the second half of the 19th century and the resultant rise in pollution, this place was abandoned in 1882 after the wife of Governor Lord James Fergusson died here of cholera. Like New House in Fort, the Government House at Parel still stands and is now known to us as the Haffkine’s Institute.

Governor Sir Richard Temple initiated the formal transfer of the Government House from Parel to Malabar Point. Marine Villa, the building that housed the early residence and office of the Governor stood on a fifty-acre property laced by beach and forest. Over the years many more structures were added to make it into a formidable administrative complex from where British Governors held sway over large swathes of Western India known as the Bombay Presidency.

Upon independence, Government House was renamed Raj Bhavan. The Raj Bhavan serves not only as a residence to the Governor of Maharashtra but also for visiting dignitaries such as the Prime Minister and the President of India, as well as visiting heads of state. Momentous occasions such as swearing-in ceremonies and functions felicitating litterateurs and artists are also held here.

The Mumbai Raj Bhavan has a precious collection of beautiful carpets, paintings, exquisitely carved doors and elegant French style chairs and sofas with intricate portraits on them, and is a treat to the lovers of art and history.

Most significantly, Mumbai’s Raj Bhavan at Malabar Point breathes a century and a half of history making it a must-visit destination for all wanting to know more about our city.

Monday, July 13, 2020

The Mumbai Local

Due to the Coronavirus pandemic suburban trains in Mumbai, generally called Locals, are not in service for general commuters. A few daily services though are run for those working in government departments or in essential services. And indeed, without this lifeline, Mumbai has come to a standstill. These Locals are an integral part of every Mumbaikar’s life, and though some do not use it themselves, they too depend on it. Think of it, the milkman, the newspaperwalla, the dabbawallas, our servants and others on whom we depend, rely on this untiring and reliable electric workhorse, just as generations before us have. Before the first electric Local was run on 3rd February 1925 between Victoria Terminus and Coorla, local services were operated using steam locomotives, as seen in the picture below. Originally the local services on the Bombay Baroda and Central India Railway or BB&CI (now known as Western Railway) operated up to Colaba. With the closing of the Colaba Railway Station in 1930 the mainline services were terminated at the newly built Bombay Central terminus, whilst the suburban services extended up to Churchgate. Coming back to electrification, the electric local trains, known as Electric Multiple Units or EMUs, first began with the use of 1500V DC traction in 1925. Nearly 90 years later the entire suburban network of WR and CR was converted to the more efficient 25000V AC traction in line with that used in the rest of the country. Initially, each EMU rake consisted of 4 carriages. Later, as passengers increased, the number of carriages or cars was increased to 6, then 9 and 12, with a few trains running with 15 cars. Now over 7.6 million passengers are ferried daily by Western, Central, Harbour and Trans-Harbour suburban trains making it the busiest network in the world! And this network continues to expand as the Mumbai Metropolitan Region keeps growing. And so, till the Locals do not function on a regular basis, as they did before 22nd March, the pulse of Mumbai’s heartbeat will not be the same.

Friday, May 22, 2020

Bombay Talkies


With the advent of sound in movies, i.e. talkies, in the late 1920s, the stage had been set for the move from "silent to sound" in India. And in 1931 India's first talkie Alam Ara was produced by Imperial Movietone, a partnership firm of Ardeshir Irani and the three Rangwala brothers. In contrast, Himansu Rai set up Bombay Talkies as a Limited Company with eminent denizens of Bombay as its board of directors, and a professional set up in line with international film studios, making it unique amongst Indian film companies of those days. It also had the backing of financial institutions and paid out dividends to its shareholders from the third year of its incorporation in 1934.
Besides Himansu Rai, the studio boasted of star actress Devika Rani and ace German director, Franz Osten as well as several foreign technicians. Soon after it’s founding the studio gave its first hit, Achhut Kanya in 1936. This was followed by two more, Kangan in 1939 and Bandhan in 1940. These three hits also set a laboratory assistant of Bombay Talkies, Ashok Kumar to stardom. It also launched the career of two women, Leela Chitnis as an actress and Khursheed Minocher-Homji as Bollywood’s first and only Parsi music director who went by the name Saraswati Devi. Tragedy king Dilip Kumar too was first cast in a Bombay Talkies production, Jwar Bhata. And, Mehmood and Madhubala also got a break here.
But if there is one movie that Bombay Talkies will always be remembered for, it is the 1943 release Kismet. A fast-paced movie about two separated brothers going on “different paths”, ultimately to be reunited, was a major hit that ran for 3 consecutive years in a Calcutta theater! The song, Aaj Himalay Ki Choti Se penned by Pradeep, a disguised call to the British to quit India, found instant appeal amongst audiences.
Sadly for the studio, after the death of Himansu Rai in 1940, it was split into two production groups owing to differences between the people at the helm. And what would have been India’s answer to the major Hollywood studios like Warner Bros., United Artists, MGM, etc., eventually went defunct in 1953, before its last film Baadbaan was released a year later.

Monday, April 20, 2020

The global pandemic and the Hydroxychloroquine link to India

The shipment in April 2020 of Hydroxychloroquine from India to the US, Brazil, Spain, Germany and other countries brings to mind the story of its connection with Srirangapatnam, the British Army and Gin & Tonic.
As most of us are already aware, Hydroxychloroquine has taken the world by storm due to the Coronavirus pandemic. Every newspaper and media person is talking about it, and many more countries are requesting India to supply it.
Now, a curious person might wonder how and why this chemical composition is so widely manufactured and available in India and if there is any history behind it?
Well yes, there is an interesting history behind it that goes way back to Tipu Sultan's defeat. In 1799, when the British defeated Tipu Sultan, the  Kingdom of Mysore with Srirangapatnam as its capital came under British control. For the next few days the British celebrated their victory, but within weeks many started falling sick due to malaria as Srirangapatnam was a marshy area infested with mosquitoes.
The local Indian population had over the centuries developed some self immunity whereas the British soldiers and officers who were suddenly exposed to these harsh Indian conditions started falling sick.
To overcome the mosquito menace, the British Army shifted its station from Srirangapatnam to Bangalore by establishing a cantonment there. This was a welcome change, especially due to its cool weather which the Brits were sorely missing ever since they had left the shores of Britain. But the malaria problem persisted as Bangalore too was no exception to the mosquito menace.
In 1820 French scientists Pierre Pelletier and Joseph Caventou discovered the process of extracting "Quinine" from the bark of the Chinchona tree which could be used to treat malaria. This discovery came just in time for European empires that were fast expanding into the tropical regions of the world. The British in India, who were losing men to malaria, ordered Quinine in bulk and distributed it to their soldiers who were instructed to take regular dosages so that they could build up their immunity to malaria. This was followed up in all other British settlements throughout India because every region in this country had a malaria problem to some extent.

But there was a small problem. Although many sick soldiers quickly recovered, many more soldiers who were exposed to harsh conditions of tropical India continued to fall sick, as it was later found that they were not taking the recommended dosages of Quinine. Why? Because it was very bitter!! So, by avoiding the bitter Quinine, British soldiers stationed in India were lagging on their immunity, thereby making themselves vulnerable to malaria.
That's when the British started experimenting with ways to persuade their soldiers to strictly take these dosages. During their experiments, they found that the bitter Quinine mixed with Juniper berry-based liquor turned it somewhat into a sweet concoction. This is because the molecular structure of the final solution is such that it can almost completely suppress the bitterness of Quinine.
That Juniper berry-based liquor was Gin. And the Gin mixed with Quinine was called "Gin & Tonic", which instantly became a hit among British soldiers.
The same British soldiers, who were even ready to risk their lives in the line of duty but 'feared' the bitterness of Quinine, started swearing by it daily when they mixed it with Gin. It was then the Army started issuing bottles of Gin along with "tonic water" (Quinine) as part of their monthly ration so that soldiers could themselves prepare Gin & Tonic and consume it every day to build immunity.

To cater to the growing demand for gin & other types of liquor among British soldiers, the British built several local breweries in and around Bangalore, and the liquors were supplied not only to Bangalore but to other parts of the country as well. And that's how, due to the many breweries and liquor distillation factories, Bangalore became the pub capital of India way back during the British Raj. Eventually, many of these breweries were purchased from their British owners after Indian independence by none other than Vijay Mallya's father, Vittal Mallya who then led the consortium under the group named United Breweries, with its headquarters in Bangalore.
Thus, Gin & Tonic became a popular cocktail and continues to remain a popular drink. The Quinine, which was called Tonic, started being prescribed by doctors to patients who needed a cure for fever or any infection. Whenever someone in India fell sick, he would often be advised, "Visit the doctor and get some tonic". Over time, the tonic word was so overused that it became a reference to any medicine in general. So, this is how "Tonic" became a colloquial word for "Western medicine" in India.
Over the years, Quinine was developed further into many variants and derivatives, and widely prescribed by Indian doctors. One such derivative, called Hydroxychloroquine, eventually became the standardized cure for malaria because it had relatively lesser side effects as compared to the earlier variants. It is also now the most sought after drug in the world today due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
And that's how a simple peek into the history of Hydroxychloroquine takes us back to Tipu Sultan's defeat, the mosquito menace, liquor rations, colourful cocktails, tonics, and their medicinal cures.


Satyen was a conscientious employee and had spent close to a quarter century in a private bank. A devoted family man, he found solace in his...