Majhli Didi (1967)

Let me begin this review with a quick confession: I don’t cry easily while watching films.

I didn’t sob my heart out while watching Majhli Didi either. But I had a lump in my throat during several scenes, and I wiped away more than a couple of tears.

Meena Kumari in and as Majhli Didi.

There are some key words which, when associated with Hindi cinema, tend to make me steer clear of the film in question. Family drama is one of them. Child artists is another (what with most children in Hindi films being depicted as either miniature adults or precocious little brats I would happily throttle). On the other hand, when I see names like Meena Kumari, Dharmendra, and Lalita Pawar in the cast, hope begins to stir. And when I realize the director’s Hrishikesh Mukherjee… well, then.

Majhli Didi, based on Saratchandra Chattopadhyay’s novel Mej Didi (Middle Sister) is interestingly named, because the eponymous protagonist, Hemangini ‘Hem’ (Meena Kumari) is the actual ‘middle sister’ to just one person (Jalal Agha), who appears only very briefly, as he’s passing through the village in which Hemangini lives with her in-laws.

Majhli Didi's bhaiya

To nearly everybody else, Hemangini is the chhoti bahu, the wife of Bipin (Dharmendra), the younger of two wealthy brothers who own a large village shop.

To Bipin’s elder brother Naveen (Bipin Gupta), she is just Bipin’s wife, the mother of Uma (Baby Sarika) and Lalit (?).

And to Bipin’s shrewish wife Kadambari (Lalita Pawar), she is a thorn in the side. Kadambari does not like Hem: the younger woman’s origins, an educated city girl (even if the only visible remnant of her urban background is her hairstyle), who can think for herself, who speaks up when she feels like it, who has no qualms about holding a mirror up to Kadambari’s many hypocrisies and pettinesses… all of it riles Kadambari.

Kadambari, Hemangini's elder sister-in-law

Add to this mix Kadambari’s two children, the gluttonous and unlikable Paanchoo and the quiet, shy Tunnu; an old maidservant who is referred to only as Shankar’s Mother, and a servant called Sheikhu, and you have the household. The brothers busy in their work, Kadambari always crowing about what a grand and wealthy home she came from and what a hellhole she’s landed up in, and Hem buying gulabjamuns for the children –first and foremost, Paanchoo, just as his mother has been cribbing that chhoti bahu has bought sweets for her own children without a thought for her poor nephew and niece.

Kadambari and Paanchoo with Hem

It is easy to see how Kadambari’s mind works, and how different it is from the open, generous Hem’s.

This generosity and concern for others comes to the fore one day when a poor villager comes to the shop. He tells Bipin that he (the old man, whom Bipin is acquainted with) is in debt to Naveen. The due amount–Rs 500–has somehow been scraped together; he’s only Rs 20 short, but Naveen will not accept anything but the full amount. What shall he do? If he does not pay, Naveen will take away his land.

A desperate villager comes to Bipin

Bipin is a good man, a kind man. He takes out Rs 20 and presses it into the old man’s hand, telling him to not tell Naveen that Bipin is the one who’s given this money. When he notices, too, that the old man isn’t well, he gives him a further Rs 20 for treatment. As the old man is leaving, Bipin reminds him: don’t let Naveen know that Bipin has given part of the money. And, get a receipt for the return of the money.

The old man, however, is too poor, too cowed down, and perhaps just too tired and illiterate to ask for a receipt. He goes away without one.

Naveen is miffed that the old man has been able to return the money: if he hadn’t, Naveen confides in Bipin, they would have been able to take his land as compensation. Bipin says nothing, but looks uncomfortable at this exhibition of his brother’s ruthlessness and greed.

That isn’t the end of the affair, however. Naveen is not the kind to baulk at cheating in order to extort land or money that isn’t his. Soon enough, the old man receives a summons to appear in court: Naveen is suing him for not returning the Rs 500. Hemangini, when she comes to know, is furious and tries to get Bipin to intervene, but he seems reluctant. He says he’ll try to talk to bhaiya, but it’s obvious to Hem that her husband is too scared of his brother to actually do anything about the matter.

Hem is disturbed by the plight of the old man

When the case comes up in court, Naveen’s lawyer (Asit Sen) is in full flow, poking fun at his opponent, smugly certain that he’s going to win the case. Until the defence lawyer calls his witness. Hem.

Naveen's lawyer preens in court, confident.

Although we do not get to see Hem’s testimony, we see the aftermath of it. Bipin is furious, because Hem–contrary to all that is expected of a good, upper-class Bengali woman, who should have stayed quietly at home–has volunteered to go into the witness box. And that too against her own brother-in-law, resulting in the shaming of the family. Even angrier than Bipin are his brother and Kadambari. Kadambari, especially, leaves nothing unsaid in her tirade against Hem. The end result is that the family splits. Bipin, Hem and their children move into a separate house, adjoining the main one.

A quarrel - and a schism.

Into this broken and angry family (angry, at least, on the part of Kadambari, who continues to nurse a deep hatred for Hem, no matter if Hem still treats Bipin, Kadambari and their children just as she did before) comes Kishan (Master Sachin).

Kishan is the son of Kadambari’s stepmother (Leela Chitnis). At the start of the film, we are introduced to her, a widowed and frail woman who does odd jobs for people to scrape together enough money to look after Kishan. The ‘look after Kishan’ is the key phrase here: her entire life is devoted to making sure Kishan is fed, educated, happy, no matter if she must go hungry or toil in spite of being ill in the process. To his credit, Kishan is deeply devoted to his mother, too, and is sensitive enough to try and do what he can to help.

Kishan with his mother

One evening, when there’s a jatra performance in the village and Kishan goes off–eager to watch, yet feeling guilty and reluctant, because he can see his mother is ill–Ma collapses. Kishan, listening to a song in praise of mothers, hurries home only to have his mother die before his very eyes…

Kishan's mother, on her deathbed

…and, a few days later, a forlorn little figure with a shaven head is wished farewell by the neighbourhood, with an old lady (Leela Misra) pressing a rupee into his hand and blessing him. Kishan is being escorted by a local villager to his only living relative, Kadambari.

Kishan is given a sad farewell

But Kadambari is by no means welcoming; this little stepbrother is an unpleasant surprise for her. She is inclined to throw him out, but when the man accompanying Kishan pleads, telling her that Kishan has nowhere else to go, she is forced to agree to let the boy stay on.

Not that there is any chance of Kishan being happy here. Kadambari despises him, sending him immediately to live in the servant’s room. Instead of being sent to school, Kishan is set to work in Naveen’s shop, lugging sacks with the other servant Bhola (Keshto Mukherjee), weighing grain, sweeping and doing other jobs no little boy should be burdened with. Paanchoo pokes fun at him, and Kadambari, at imagined slights or shortcomings, deprives Kishan of food. All this, besides the constant barrage of insults and belittling that poor Kishan has to put up with.

Naveen and Kadambari let fly at Kishan

But Hem, living next door, soon begins to realize how Kishan is being treated. And, because she cannot bear to see the child treated thus, tries to take him under her wing, show him some love and affection…

Hem takes Kishan under her wing

Majhli Didi is a lovely, sensitive film about an unusual love story: that of a little boy with no-one in the world, and a woman who–even though she lives comfortably, in relative prosperity and with a loving family–has the humanity to see the plight of a child, to recognise his loneliness, and to empathize with him. I had been, admittedly, a little wary when I first heard the name of this film (my experiences with films named after relationships–Bhabhi, Chhoti Bahen, BhaiBahen, Bhai-Bhai –has ranged from average to insufferable). But I ended up loving it. Vintage Hrishikesh Mukherjee.

What I liked about this film:

The lightness of hand with both the story and the direction. It’s not a frothy story; in fact, it’s deeply distressing at times. But Mukherjee (and Sarathchandra, I assume, though I’ve not read the original book) does not make it melodramatic or unreal. These are very real people, people like you and me. Kishan, for instance, even when his mother’s ill (and later dead) is not completely without friends. The other villagers, though they’re poor, do what they can to help: one of them, a man called Sanatan, gets medicine on his own account for the sick woman, and when she’s dead, he escorts Kishan to Kadambari’s. Except for Paanchoo and Kadambari–both of whom are pretty vile–everybody is the average, mostly-good man on the street. Good at heart, perhaps not willing to go out of one’s way to help, but not downright evil either.

Which brings me to the characterization. The characters in Majhli Didi are deftly etched. Bipin, for example, who–though at heart a good man, kind and sympathetic, a loving husband and father–is  also far too conforming, too wary of going up against his elder brother, even if it is at the cost of his own wife. A good man, with values and a heart, but somewhat spineless, especially when it comes to facing up to Naveen.

Dharmendra as Bipin

And there is Hem, a fine example of a woman character who is so very real. She is modern in her thinking– that appearance at court is proof, her insistence that her children be educated is proof–but that isn’t at odds with the way she dresses, the way she seems content, settled into her life in the village. Also, a kind and large-hearted woman, but not a martyr. She snaps back at people, telling even Naveen and Kadambari, to their faces, what she thinks of them. She even, in a fit of annoyance when she is ill, yells at her husband and Kishan for ‘pestering’ her. A real woman, not Hindi cinema’s usual devi ma.

Meena Kumari as Hem

Similarly with Kishan: this is a real child, not a cardboard cutout of what an ideal child should be, saccharine sweet (or, conversely, in a case like this, woefully pathetic). Kishan is a sorry figure when at Kadambari’s, but he does have the guts to tell Paanchoo off. He cowers from the people who ill-treat him, but blossoms shyly in the presence of Hem. And, like any child, he makes mistakes–stealing guavas for Hem when she’s ill, for example–but then realizing that he’s done wrong when she admonishes him for it.

And what superb acting by both Meena Kumari and Sachin. These two really are the stars of the film: their chemistry is wonderful, and they’re so very believable together.

What I didn’t like? Nothing. Paanchoo and Kadamabari may be slightly over the top, but at no point did I find myself thinking, “These people aren’t real“.

Do, do watch, if you haven’t already.

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36 thoughts on “Majhli Didi (1967)

  1. I cry very easily while watching movies – so this would not be a movie I would like to watch. Also I have read this particular story of Saratchandra’s (albeit in translation).
    However, since that was such a long time ago, and I do not remember the story much other than it being a sensitive one, your review does tempt me, Madhu. :-)
    So maybe some day!

    • Oddly enough, most of the tears I shed while watching Majhli Didi were not because of what poor Kishan was being subjected to, but when I saw his interactions with Hemangini: something so sweet and trusting there, it touched me. And, overall, the tone of the film didn’t strike me as morbid or outright depressing, because there’s the knowledge that Hem is there for Kishan, even if there’s no-one else.

      Do try it, Harini, if and when you get the time! And tell me what you think of it as an adaptation.

  2. This is an old favorite from my childhood. I cried unashamedly while watching the movie. I remember the Sachin parts, how he is orphaned and how he is ill-treated by others but loved by Meena Kumari. I even remember the end :), but the rest of it, the court case and all that, I don’t remember. I must have watched the movie more than 40 years ago. That is a long time.

    I am afraid of watching it again, can’t bear to cry now.

    • I am very impressed by your memory, Ava. Even if you don’t remember all of it (and the court case part is fairly brief), still. I don’t know how many films which I watched in my childhood I remember now as anything more than just the mere gist.

      For me, the crying was somehow – well, not depressing. More cathartic, if you know what I mean – because they were more tears of happiness than anything else.

  3. A film I have always quoted when pointing out that Meena Kumari doesn’t shed tears in many of her films.
    So pleased you liked it Madhu. Meena Kumari once again in a film that gives her the main role.
    Another one that has a name that might put off some, but like this film has a Meena Kumari where she doesn’t shed tears, and is not a typical family drama is Bhabhi ki choodiyan. I know I have mentioned it earlier. :-)

    • I’ve been wanting to see Bhabhi ki Choodiyaan for quite a while now, what with so many people recommending it (and Anu’s review of it helped even more) but haven’t been able to find it on Youtube. (Incidentally, searching for Youtube for bhabhi ki choodiyaan invariably throws up results that include everything from Jyoti kalash chhalke to porn. :-(

      Oh, yes. Meena Kumari didn’t shed tears in lots of films. Kohinoor, Akeli Mat Jaiyo, Bandish and Azaad among the other ones I’ve seen. And this one is a fine example (unlike the other films, which are all frothy and light-hearted) of a ‘serious’ film where she isn’t weepy.

      • (Incidentally, searching for Youtube for bhabhi ki choodiyaan invariably throws up results that include everything from Jyoti kalash chhalke to porn. :-(

        LOL!!!

        • Thank you so very much for taking the trouble of finding that for me, pacifist! (To be honest, my earlier attempts to search for the film sickened me so much with the results, that I never went back). Thank you. Have bookmarked this.

          • I think the eralier search leading to porn was because of a certain TV series with the name bhabhi in it. I heard about it because there was a discussion on another blog related to some people who wanted it banned. Don’t know what happened whether it has been banned or not.

            • No, that wasn’t it. There were some brief clips of something else with a name similar to Bhabhi ki Chudiyaan – the last word was different, but obscenely similar. Aap khud hi samajh jaaiye! ;-)

  4. I’m so glad you reviewed it, Madhu. This is a lovely little gem of a movie, and deserves to be better known than it is. This is one of Meena Kumari’s really, really good roles, one where she is not asked to be the tear-soaked tragedienne from beginning to end.

    I wanted to smack Dharmendra in this film. :) Such a loving husband, but oh, what a spineless one! His wife is such a strong character, and I like that she stands up for her principles, even if her husband disapproves of it.

    • Anu, I’ve been wishing I’d watched this a lot sooner! Yes, it is a gem of a film, and deserves to be right up there among the best family dramas Hindi cinema’s ever dished up (frankly, this one’s far better – as far as I am concerned – than most of the stuff churned out by AVM or Rajshri).

      And yes, Dharmendra’s character made me want to slap him. Otherwise such a sweet man – kind, good – but such a wimp when it came to standing up to his brother. (Incidentally, I’ve realised I’ve watched several Dharmendra films over the past couple of months, and it made me think: what a very varied lot of roles he essayed. This one, for example, is poles apart from stuff like Aankhen. Much more open to experiment, i think, than someone like Shammi Kapoor, who got pretty much typecast post Tumsa Nahin Dekha).

      • Otherwise such a sweet man – kind, good –
        Yes, very supportive of his wife as well, in all ways except when it comes to his brother.

        I agree with you completely that Dharmendra played so many more varied characters than Shammi did. Poor Dharmendra, unfortunately, got typecast in the late 70s, early 80s, when the Kutte, Kameene roles became his staple. I think Yaadon ki Baraat is to blame for that. Because, until then, even playing ‘hero’ roles, there was a softness to his characters that disappeared once the vengeance-seeking roles became the norm.

        • Yes, and the sad part is that far too many people remember him only for his kutte-kameene roles and don’t even realize what a very versatile actor he was. I mean, all you have to do is look at this film, and Chupke-Chupke, Satyakaam, Anupama and even Haqeeqat, etc, to see how very good he could be at very different types of roles.

  5. A film based on a popular Bengali novel and you bet there were the usual comments, you know the usual- the novel was better and so on. As for me as a kid, I did not like it, you cannot blame me I was a kid and found it depressing.
    I do have a sweet memory associated with the film though. A relative was visiting us and as was the case with visiting relatives and friends we had to take this relative to see some film shoots. My father was shooting on one floor of a studio, I think it was Mohan Studio and Majhli Didi was being shot on another floor. So we moved from my father’s shoot to Majhli Didi’s shoot. I remember one of the crew members, it was the same unit from Anupama, playfully threw a pebble at my father, his aim was not right, the pebble hit me instead and the crew member was a bit embarrassed.

    • Yes, I’m sure if I’d seen this film as a kid I’d have almost certainly hated it too. (Though, come to think of it, even though I wept through most of the Chinese film Bubbling Springs – which was about a group of little orphans who are going to be turned out of the home they’ve been brought up in – and yet I loved it – it may even be not). But your comment about people saying that the novel was better makes me curious to read it. I had tried searching for an English translation after I watched the film, but couldn’t find one. Must search more assiduously, I guess!

      Oh, poor you. I hope that pebble didn’t hurt too badly. But that is an interesting memory to have.

  6. Like Ava, I saw this film many years ago but didn’t remember anything about it other than it starred Meena Kumari and Dharmendra. Your review has revived my interest – think I’ll watch it again.

    RE, the early versatility of Dharmendra, I think his pairing with established, serious actresses like Meena K, Nutan or even Vyjanthimala had a lot to do with it.

    • Yes, I agree that his pairing with actresses like Nutan or Meena Kumari had much to do with it. Also possibly his willingness to even take on brief roles, cameos and the like (Khamoshi comes to mind, and in his early years, Anpadh). Plus, roles like this in Majhli Didi (or even, come to think of it, Aayi Milan ki Bela), where his character isn’t your quintessential hero.

      By the way, besides Pyaar hi Pyaar, which other films did Dharmendra work in opposite Vyjyanthimala?

  7. Your wonderful review made me to watch this movie. Really a good movie, some scenes are very emotional like that when Kishan was beaten up Nobin and Kadomabari and it was too hard for the cows to face that pathetic situation.

  8. Madhu,
    It is a very nice review of a very sweet, poignant film. In your reviews you normally mention the songs, if these are significant. One such song is Umariya bin khevak ki naiya. You see a silent Sachin, who has been tonsured as per the funeral rituals following his mother’s death, being taken to her Didi’s home for which they have to cross the river, when this beautiful Hemant Kumar song filters in. Then the river, the boat and the boatman, who has been singing this deeply sad and philosophical song, come in view. The life of the boy is now like a boat adrift in the absence of a boatman (or a benefactor). The song ends as the boat anchors at the other bank. Neeraj’s poetry, Hemant Kumar’s melodious voice, the sad expression on the face of the boatman as he sings, the vast river, the orphan boy and his escort, both remaining silent throughout except for a gentle touch off and on, all these leave an indelible imprint.
    AK

    • I think I got too carried away with the film itself – not the songs – to mention that (though I should also perhaps point out that the songs are few and far between, with only that one repeated song being the ‘main’ one)! But thank you, AK, for highlighting this one. It did move me when I heard/watched it, because it is such a touching reflection on the little boy’s life being now without someone to steer it. Beautiful song, beautifully rendered, and beautifully depicted onscreen.

  9. Majhli didi is a beautiful film, isn’t it?? It may not be very well known like other Hrishida films but it deserves to be. At the time of its release, though it wasn’t a big sucess, it earned much critical acclaim and was India’s official entry to the Oscars that year.

    Apart from Hrishida and Sarat Babu ( who well maybe world’s most cinematised author :P ), a lot of the credit for the film goes to screenplay writer Nabendu Ghosh. The screenplay here is well paced, realistic, suited to the story without getting melodramatic or over the top at any moment. Little wonder then that Nabendu Ghosh won the best screenplay award at the Filmfare that year. About Nabendu Ghosh, one can safely say that when it came to adapting literature in Hindi films, he is the best that Bollyland ever produced. Because quite often we see, esp in Indian cinema, that good or even great literature often gets ruined due to poor screen writing.

    • It certainly deserves to be right up there with the rest of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films – it’s really good, and as you pointed out – without getting melodramatic or over the top at any moment. That was one thing I really loved about it: the people in it were people one could relate to. Not completely escapist. I must pay closer attention to the other films Nabendu Ghosh wrote for Bollywood – I have come across his name in credits several times, but offhand, can’t recall the other films.

      “Because quite often we see, esp in Indian cinema, that good or even great literature often gets ruined due to poor screen writing.

      Oh, yes. I did an entire blog post on cinematic adaptations of books, and came to the conclusion that it’s a rare book that ends up being turned into anything approaching the book!

  10. A film being at par with the original book or better is indeed very very rare, But at least a film based on a good book should be good. But even that doesn’t happen most of the times because it’s a very tough job to do so as screen and page are two entirely different mediums.

    And some of Nabendu Ghosh’s films include Sujata, Bandini, Teesri Kasam, Abhimaan among others. I will write about him and others scriptwriters of Bollywood in my soon to be posted pet project series on Literature, Screenplay and Bollywood.

    • I think the chances of a film based on a good book being good are even more rare, because it’s a rare film maker who can envision – as well as the writer of that good book – how it should play out, what should be omitted, and so on. Off the top of mind, I can say that two of my favourite films, in that they are good adaptations of books, are Where Eagles Dare and Don Camillo – both of which were scripted by the authors of the respective books. Which is tellling.

      I am looking forward to your series on Literature, Screenplay and Bollywood. Really. Please hurry up!

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