Today marks hundred years of the birth of one of Hindi cinema’s finest directors: Hrishikesh Mukherjee was born on September 30, 1922, in Calcutta. Beginning in the late 1940s, Mukherjee worked as a film editor in Calcutta, before moving on to Bombay, where too he continued as editor, gradually moving on to direction as well. Mukherjee’s first film as director was Musafir (1957), and while it didn’t fare too well, it set the tone for a lot of Mukherjee’s later works: films about everyday people, with everyday triumphs and everyday sorrows. His were not the masala films that have always tended to dominate Hindi cinema, and yet—whether he was making classic comedies like Chupke-Chupke or Golmaal, or more nuanced, sensitive films like Majhli Didi, Satyakam, or Abhimaan, Hrishikesh Mukherjee made films that were hard to fault. He is one of the rare directors for whom I will watch a film just because it’s been made by this person.
But, less about Hrishikesh Mukherjee. If you want to know more about his cinema, I would recommend Jai Arjun Singh’s wonderful The World of Hrishikesh Mukherjee: The Filmmaker Everyone Loves. I, to celebrate Hrishida’s birth centenary, will focus on one of his films instead.
Mem-Didi is a story set in a small, poor neighbourhood. There are chawls which share one tap, everybody lining up in front of it with their matkas and buckets. There are shared joys: at the start of the film, Girdhari (?) is rushing around, reminding everybody that this is the night his daughter gets married, and they must come.
There are also shared sorrows. The local moneylender (Dhumal) is a greedy and usurious sort, who, once he’s got his claws into a poor denizen of the area, does not let go. One of these poor people, driven to desperation, goes for help to the local dadas: Bahadur Singh (David Abraham) and his best friend the Pathan Sher Khan (Jayant). Bahadur and Sher Khan take themselves off to the moneylender’s, and within minutes, by sheer force of personality, have managed to get him to do what they want: take on as employee, at a hefty salary, the very man he’s been putting the screws on.
They also try to get him to give the man a rather nice room the moneylender (also the local landlord) owns, but Sethji says he’s already given out that room. To a memsahib, who will soon be arriving. A memsahib? Who?
Shortly after, the two friends meet the memsahib (Lalita Pawar), while they’re lounging about, blocking her path as she tries to make her way to the room she’s rented. When they realize this is the newcomer, both Sher Khan and Bahadur Singh are very amused and begin to laugh (she’s nothing like the glamorous mem they’d imagined). The memsahib is so annoyed at what seems like mockery, she slaps them, shoves them out of the way, and goes off to her new home.
Sher Khan and Bahadur are horrified. This old lady slapped them. Them, the men whom the entire neighbourhood looks up to. Whom the poor and helpless look to for support; whom the local goons and villains fear. They’ve been slapped, bad enough for Bahadur to have a tooth get dislodged. To save face, they have to have their revenge—but neither of them will raise a hand on a woman.
Bahadur Singh comes up with a somewhat iffy and convoluted plan: they will go to Memsahib’s house, trick her into sitting down on a chair, and then they will throw the chair out. Mission accomplished. They will have avenged themselves, and without laying a hand on her.
None of this pans out the way they had planned; Memsahib, all unwittingly, spikes their guns. She is sweet and kind and good-humoured; she insists on giving them sweets (because they’ve come to her home for the first time); she wants to know their names; she is all generous and friendly, and by the time the two men admit the truth (somewhat sheepishly) about why they’ve come, they are really in no mood or condition to go through with their idea.
In fact, by the time they leave, they’ve decided to call Memsahib Mem-Didi, and she has adopted them as her moonh-bola bhais. All is sweetness and light, and Sher Khan and Bahadur soon become Mem-Didi’s best friends in the basti. When Bahadur accidentally leaves behind his shirt at her home during a visit, Mem-Didi (who takes on tailoring jobs) mends his shirt, and Sher Khan too takes the opportunity to ‘accidentally’ leave his ripped kurta at her home too.
Mem-Didi, as they soon discover, works herself to the bone: she stitches clothes, she makes badis and achars to sell at local shops… but she doesn’t spend extravagantly, and she lives in this meagre little room. She is a miser. She won’t even cough up a rupee for the upcoming Holi celebrations, say the men who are sitting and gossiping in what passes for the village square.
Bahadur and Sher Khan are quick to jump to the defence of their new friend. Of course Mem-Didi isn’t like that, and she will donate generously.
What neither of them realizes is that Mem-Didi, for all her prim neatness and her air of relative wealth, is working herself to the bone not because she’s fond of money but because she needs it: her daughter, Rita Roy (Tanuja) is at a finishing school in Simla. Mem-Didi fondly believes that Rita is acquiring the polish and finesse of a fine young lady, but while that is happening, Rita is also enjoying herself, poking fun at her hoity-toity teacher (Ruby Myers/Sulochana), dancing, singing and picnicking with her friends,
And romancing her beloved, Dilip (Kaysi Mehra; his name was actually KC Mehra and he acted only in Mem-Didi and Chhabili, which starred Nutan and also featured Tanuja. Interestingly, Kaysi/KC Mehra left cinema after Mem-Didi and entered the world of business; he retired as Deputy Managing Director of TISCO and then became Resident Director of the Shapoorji Pallonji Group; his credentials in the corporate world are pretty impressive, as can be seen from this brief bio).
To keep Rita happy, to pay for her education in an elite finishing school, Mem-Didi labours away at her sewing machine through the night. She even accepts what she knows are ridiculously unfair payments for the badis she supplies to a local shopkeeper—all so that she will have enough to send a money order to Rita on time.
One day, coming home in the rain, Mem-Didi falls very ill. Sher Khan and Bahadur, discovering her almost unconscious, quickly fetch the doctor (Rashid Khan), by threatening him with dire consequences, even though his clinic is full of patients waiting to be attended to. ‘They’re still alive, aren’t they?’ the doctor is told when he protests.
The doctor prescribes medicines, Bahadur and Sher Khan appoint two young women from the neighbourhood to look after Mem-Didi, and they seat themselves down there too, not budging from her home, not eating or sleeping, so worried are they. Bahadur, having recalled seeing Rita’s address among Mem-Didi’s belongings, writes to Rita, summoning her.
… which is why, when Mem-Didi finally regains consciousness and sits up, she is devastated to discover that Rita is about to arrive (Rita has sent a telegram, which has just been handed over to Mem-Didi). Why devastated? Because this, it turns out, is all part of a grand deception. Rita is not really Mem-Didi’s daughter; her parents were very wealthy people, and Mem-Didi used to be Rita’s ayah. When Rita’s parents died, all their money too was lost, but Mem-Didi, who could not bear to break her darling’s heart or her hopes, told Rita that her inheritance was intact.
This is why, all this while, Mem-Didi has been slogging away, not caring about herself, just to make sure Rita, away at finishing school, can continue to enjoy all the comforts she is used to. But what will happen now? When Rita comes here, to this tiny little room, where she’ll discover the truth?
Mem-Didi is classic Hrishikesh Mukherjee: a film about regular people, leading everyday lives. There are no arch villains, no mad car chases and huge godowns crowded with empty oil drums that will be used in the showdown. No extended fighting-turned-to-romance, no comic side plot punctuated by lots of slapstick.
Instead, it’s all mostly believable. The most villainous villains are Dilip’s greedy father (Hari Shivdasani), whose only wish in life seems to be to acquire more and more wealth. And even he, all said and done, hardly gets much of a chance to be exceptionally villainous (on the other hand, he gets put in his place pretty quickly). The only other real villains are a bunch of hoodlums who snatch Mem-Didi’s purse, and whom Bahadur and Sher Khan quickly browbeat into giving back the money they’d stolen…
What I liked about this film:
Read that last line of the paragraph above, and then this:
… in fact, the hoodlums return Rs 500 instead of the Rs 300 they had robbed Mem-Didi of.
And Dilip’s father, every time he is convinced of how fabulously wealthy Dilip (and therefore he, by extension) is going to be, he grabs the nearest glass of sherbet and gulps it down.
Small things, gently funny, the way life is.
And so too, like real life, are the people in this story. Mem-Didi, trying so hard to maintain a deception, just so that Rita will not be inconvenienced. Bahadur and Sher Khan, putting their own carefree existence at stake to ensure the happiness of a girl they have adopted as foster niece. Sethji himself, bullied into so much he doesn’t like, but gamely co-operating.
A lot of love. It’s not love that pours out in the form of long, melodramatic dialogues and so on; it’s more sensitive, more subtle love, the sort of love that comes across immediately as more real. A love that makes Mem-Didi such a heartwarming and sweet little film.
The cast must be applauded too. Lalita Pawar, whom most people tend to associate with her roles as the shrew, shows here—as she did in films like Anari—that she was no one-trick pony, and puts in a poignant performance as the eponymous Mem-Didi. David is pretty much his usual avuncular self, but Jayant, for me, was even more likeable than David: Sher Khan, big and boisterous, is an utter gem (I first saw Jayant in a major role that was also of a ‘good’ and loyal friend in Garam Coat, and I do wish he’d got more roles like these). Also, a special shout-out for the song (in Pashto? I don’t know) that Sher Khan keeps singing every now and then: it was stirring, and very beautiful, even if I couldn’t understand a word. I have no idea if Jayant actually sang this, but it seemed as if he did.
Talking of songs, the score of Mem-Didi is very pleasant. Salil Choudhary composed the music, with lyrics by Shailendra, for some very hummable songs: my favourites here include Main jaanti hoon tum jhooth bolte ho; Beta wow wow wow mere kaan mat khaao (also a favourite of my daughter’s, who’s loved this one since she was tiny and used to think “sone ki katori mein chalke doodh-bhaat khaao” was “sone ki katori mein chalke door bhaag jaao”), Bachpan o bachpan pyaare-pyaare bachpan, and Raaton ko jab neend ud jaaye. The very first song in the film, the credits song Bhula do zindagi ka gham, reminded me (both when it came to lyrics as well as music) of the stirring Tu zinda hai toh zindagi ki jeet par yakeen kar. Not coincidentally, Shailendra was the man who wrote both songs—but I have no idea who composed the music for Tu zinda hai.
A delightful film, the sort that leaves me with a warm and fuzzy feeling.
Happy 100th, Hrishida. Thank you for the cinema.