Mem-Didi (1961)

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.

32 thoughts on “Mem-Didi (1961)

  1. There’s nothing you didn’t like about the movie. Well, that’s indicative of your assessment of it. I have seen and liked it too but not to this extent. Hrishi Da could make good movies only when he got good scripts. That’s why there are many bad movies in his repertoire including Achha Bura (1983) which was nothing but a remake of Mem Didi only. Jayant’s role in Mem Didi was repeated by his real son Amjad Khan in Achha Bura whereas Ranjeet played the role of David. Deena Pathak became Mem Didi in Achha Bura. Hrishi Da had made Achha Bura as a tribute to David who had passed away a little ago. Thanks for sharing your take reading which was like watching Mem Didi again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting to see that the original Hollywood film Lady For A Day (1933) too was remade by the director Frank Capra as Pocketful of Miracles (1961). Also made into a 1989 Jackie Chan action-comedy vehicle Miracles (aka Mr. Canton and Lady Rose).

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        • Both the Hollywood versions are by Capra. Have fun tracking them both down, watching them and then writing a compare/contrast blog post. Looking forward already to that. 😊

          Liked by 1 person

          • I found Pocketfull of Miracles on Youtube, and intend to watch it very soon! I am quite sure I won’t watch the earlier film, because that would be overkill, but I am curious about the Hollywood versions enough to want to see how they differed from Mem-Didi.

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      • I may not always agree, but I do enjoy your reviews.

        I have seen and loved almost all HM films and put this is at bottom.
        Except for Jayant, none of the actors could convince me. He, as you have rightly put, was a darling!
        His portrayal reminded me of that of Oscar winner Victor McLaglen in 1935 ‘Inforner’.

        ‘Memdidi’ was based on the 1961 Capra film ‘Pocket full of Miracles’, which in turn was a remake of his own ‘Lady for a Day’ (1933) from a short story ‘Madame La Gimp’ by Damon Runyon (1929).

        1973 ‘Loafer’ and 2008 ‘Singh is Kinng’ used the story as well.

        24 OCT 2022

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        • Yes, someone else also mentioned that bit about this being based on Pocket Full of Miracles, and that prompted me to go and watch it too – but it couldn’t hold my attention for long (despite this being Frank Capra, whom I generally like a lot). I gave up after half an hour; it was just too tedious for me.

          As for me, the most uninspiring Hrishikesh Mukherjee film I’ve seen has got to be Do Dil. I’m not even very fond of Asli-Naqli and Chhaya. And yes, Pyaar ka Sapna: Mala Sinha was lovely in that, but the film itself was pretty regressive.

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    • I hadn’t known about Achha Bura, Jitendraji. I am tempted to watch it and see how it compares with this one, but while I do often watch films from the 70s, the 80s is a decade I tend to steer clear of – Hindi cinema had really begun to go down the drain by then!

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  2. Thanks for the review Madhu. Besides the story, what make a film memorable are the dialogues – written by Rajinder Singh Bedi! (Maybe i am biased). He wrote for several Hrishikesh Mukherjee films. And again Garam Coat that you mention was written by him. His family appears in a cameo in that film as well.

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    • Yes, indeed! I noticed Rajinder Singh Bedi’s name being credited for the dialogues, and I do agree that he did a very good job with them. (No, you’re not biased! – or even if you are, you’re biased here with reason). There are some pretty punny and funny dialogues there, especially in the conversations between Bahadur and Sher Khan.

      I remembered of course that he and his family were involved so in Garam Coat. :-)

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  3. You have done it again Madhu – you described a movie so wonderfully that I want to find the next opportunity that I have to watch it. I have long been a fan of Lalita Pawar – and her ability to play the shrew, the villain, or the prickly yet kindly older lady. She was a bit overused in the shrew category just cause she could do it with a single raised eyebrow – but I loved it when she did different roles – like in Parvarish, where she is the loving mother who even gets to sing a lovely lori (in Asha’s voice).

    Hrishikesh Mukherjee – what a gem of a director – while I don’t necessary remember him for his “direction” per-se in terms of camera angles or interesting shots – it was his choice of story lines, and his low-key non-flashy way of capturing your interest that stood out for me. And very often a subtle sense of humor flowing through his films. When his movies came out, it was an opportunity for a family outing to the movies.
    About the music in “Memdidi”, some lovely songs. And you are right – “Tu zinda hai” is indeed composed by Salil – in fact, the link you provided actually says that itself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s really well said, sangeetbhakt. I completely agree with you about Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s not being about camera angles and stuff, but about the story itself, the subtlety and the ‘human value’ of them, if one might call it that…

      I am so glad you enjoyed this post. Thank you!

      Also, thank you for pointing out that the link I provided to Tu zinda hai actually mentioned Salil! How that escaped me, I don’t know.

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  4. Madhuji, Mem Didi is a movie I watched twice over. This is a real feel good movie with some wonderful songs. The senior actors are the real heroes of the movie. I loved K.C.Mehra too. He should have acted more. I also adore the song that Tanuja sings along with the dog -Beta Wow Wow Wow

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  5. I love Memdidi! It’s the film that changed my opinion of Lalita Pawar as a shrew. :) I remember being so surprised that she wasn’t an evil, conniving, mother/stepmother/mother-in-law that I almost fell off my chair! And you’re so right about Jayant – he was such a cute teddy bear in this.

    Tu zinda hain was composed by Salilda for the Bombay Youth Choir back in 1957. The lyrics were by Shailendra. Then he used the tune for Memdidi and Shailendra wrote the lyrics again. Salilda also reused the tune for the Bengali song Jibon jakhan sudhu dudin for which he wrote the lyrics himself.

    Incidentally, Beta bow wow wow is inspired by the 1956 Eydie Gorme hit Mama, teach me to dance.

    Thanks for the review. I need to watch this again sometime. I need some gentle goodness in my life!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for explaining the history behind Tu zinda hai, Anu. Interesting! And I can see the resemblance to Mama teach me to dance, though (of course) I cannot help but think Salilda changed it sufficiently to make it his own.

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      • Yes, these are really inspired (in the correct meaning of the word) songs. And truth be told, it is very rarely that an MD of those years took a melody from the west and didn’t make it their own. I think a lot of people on the net shouting ”Plagiarised!’ don’t really know the difference between lifting a song in toto (like say, Bappi Lahiri, Anu Malik, Nadeem-Shravan did) and using the initial melody to create something totally new.

        Frankly speaking, in many if not all the cases in the 50s and 60s, I have preferred the Indian versions to the western ones. Our music directors, musicians and arrangers layered so much complexity to simple melodies that yes, you may still recognize the western melody it is taken from – like you recognized the resemblance to Mama teach me to dance – but as you note, it’s so much Salilda’s tune when he finishes with it even if its provenance lies elsewhere.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Very true. This is something I’ve always held by. All you have to do is hear something like Jeevan ke safar mein raahi (and its corresponding Mexican hat dance or O babu o lala (and Rum and Coca Cola, and it’s easy to see that MDs like SDB or Ravi changed that core tune into something that’s very different and far better than the original. So complex, so magical, in both cases – and in countless other songs by many other MDs. Yes, there were rather more straightforward lifts (C Ramachandra was guilty of some of those…), but mostly, I think these men really knew what being ‘inspired’ meant.

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  6. Thank you or a very well written review of the film. I really liked his film ‘Anand’. He has directed a lot of very nice films. Very talented director. Will surely see this film.

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  7. Wasn’t Hrishida’s later film Accha Burra itself a remake, rather retake, of Mem Didi? Besides, both Mem Didi and Anari I guess were made purposively and exaggeratedly comic, caricaturish and melodramatic(?) Hrishida’s later comedies and melodramas were more situational and understated. The former attempts even so are characterized by certain innocence and charm that were trademark Hrishida.

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    • Personally, I didn’t find it ‘exaggeratedly’ comic, caricaturish or melodramatic – perhaps if you compare with non-Hindi cinema, yes; not compared to Hindi cinema itself, and not even compared to most of Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s similar movies. But then, that’s a personal opinion.

      I agree, though, that his later comedies (I’m thinking, especially, of Biwi aur Makaan, Chipke Chupke, Golmaal) that relied more on situations – he became a master of that. Almost Wodehousian (an author I believe he was a fan of).

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  8. Most of HM’s movies have a feel good feeling but are not ‘realistic’. I feel his best movie was Satyakam. Obviously, the raw realism didn’t gel with the audience and it flopped. Even in Anand, his most touted film
    the Hero is too good to be true!

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    • Not realistic in themselves, but I do feel they were far more real than a lot of what other movie directors were churning out. As I’ve mentioned in the beginning, all those masala elements – the larger-than-life villains, the convoluted criminal plots, the scheming vamps and international spy chains, the birth secrets and over-the-top coincidences that pepper the films of (say) Nasir Husain or Shakti Samanta – are eons away from real life. Compared to films like these, Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films were fairly real.

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    • Someday, maybe. I don’t like Raj Kapoor, so it takes a lot of resolve to watch one of his films. ;-) Even more to rewatch – I’ve seen this one before, though many years ago. Perhaps I will watch it for the songs, and for Rehman.

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        • Anu, if in all these years of reading my reviews of RK films, you haven’t been converted….!! :-)

          Personally, I find him somewhat bearable in films where he’s not being his usual self. Right now, the only one that comes to mind is Chori-Chori. The rest – well, we will agree to disagree.

          I did re-read your review, just now, and you do make it sound worth the rewatch, though. Perhaps someday!

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      • Anu will probably disavow us, but I’m with you on Raj Kapoor dislike. RK in a normal role is hard enough to take, but in full self-pitying mode like in “Phir Subah Hogi” is more than a body can bear. :-D

        Lovely review of a sweet little film that I really liked myself. Apart from Jayant and Lalita Pawar, I was impressed by Tanuja’s performance in the film. Her natural effervescence turned what could have been an irritatingly spoiled and oblivious character into a charming, innocent, young girl for whom one roots for a happy ending.

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        • LoL! Yes, RK in full-on self-pitying mode is something I cringe even at the very thought of. But Anu makes the film sound so good in her review, I’m tempted….

          You’re right about Tanuja in Mem-Didi; she does come across as innocent and sweet, not the pampered brat she might have been. There’s something about her that I always find very beguiling.

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  9. I’m very fond of this film : ) One of its great attractions for me is that so much of the focus falls on the friendship between these three elderly neighbors, characters who would be playing side parts in a more normative movie. Although the tone and stakes are obviously very different, it kind of reminds me of the friendship between Meena’s character and the college boys in “Mere Apne”–highlighting a type of relationship that wouldn’t ordinarily be thought of as cinematic. Perhaps my argument is simply devolving into “I like it when older ladies get to have friends”!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I totally concur with the idea of older ladies getting to have friends! Or older people, even, in general. Especially when that is the focus of the story. And this one is a particularly heartwarming take on that theme. :-)

      Liked by 1 person

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