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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
…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.
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.
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…
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, Bhai–Bahen, 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.
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.
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.