Mem-didi (1961)

I was reminded of this wonderful but little-known Hrishikesh Mukherjee film (a movie that I had watched and liked way back), as I leafed through Jai’s recently released book a couple of nights back.

I had forgotten most of the movie, except that it starred an utterly delightful Tanuja (in one of her earliest roles) and Lalita Pawar and had a couple of very sweet songs.

Incidentally 23rd September happened to be Tanuja’s 72nd birthday, and a post on this blog was long overdue, I decided to watch and review this.


Mem-didi (1961) starred Lalita Pawar, David and Jayant in central roles. A very young Tanuja played the heroine and Kaysi (K.C.) Mehra played her love interest. Incidentally Kaysi Mehra made his debut along with Tanuja in Chhabili (1960). He quit films after this movie and embarked on a successful corporate career!

Hrishikesh Mukherjee wrote the screenplay (story by Sachin Bhowmick) and directed this film. This is one of Mukherjee’s earlier films, following Musafir (1957), Anari (1959), and Asli-Naqli (1961). L.B. Lachman, who also produced Anari, Asli Naqli, and Anupama, produced this gem of a movie.

It is a typical morning in a typical chawl, with its residents going about their day-to-day chores. Residents are queuing up to fill water.  Petty squabbles ensue as the people push and jostle for their turn. A roadside romeo sits there, brushing his teeth, hooting and singing songs to attract the attention of the passing by women. It is then we meet our main protagonists. These are Sher Khan (Jayant) and Bahadur Singh (David, endearing as always), the local goons of this chawl, whom everyone is afraid of. They step out of their homes and things fall back in order outside. “Dekho dada aaya, bhaago“, exclaims a lady shooing a young boy, when the portly Dada makes his appearance. They throw their weight around, chastise the roadside romeo suitably (two tight slaps!) and get on to drinking their chai at the local chaiwala.

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A quick set of episodes that ensue set the tone of the movie. We get to know that these local dadas are a pair of loud, loveable burly men – bullies on the exterior, but with a heart of gold. Brute strength and very little brains is also what they have got. Shera is all bluster, while Bahadur is the one with the brains – a little bit at any rate.

As they go about setting the bad guys right,  and doing their good deeds of the day, they hear about a new tenant, a memsaab shifting to the chawl. They do meet her soon enough. Shera and Bahadur, along with other chawl members, are playing a game of pithoo on the street blocking way. The new tenant walks up to them and chides them for blocking up the street. The two goons laugh and mock this lady and she slaps them.

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They decide to avenge this public humiliation – and come up with a rather idiotic plan. Since they do not believe in raising their hands on a woman, they plan to get her to sit on a chair (in her house) and then throw the chair out!

The plan backfires and how. They are utterly confused when the memsaab, Mrs Rosie Roy, welcomes them warmly and gets them some sweets to eat. She also gets them, in the process, to help with the furniture. The confused and frustrated Shera soon blurts out what their mission was. The irate memsaab sits on the chair and demands that they throw her out. She wants to know if this is the way women are treated in this chawl. This angry rant of hers soon dissolves into tears. The shamed men apologise and call her Mem-didi. She shall be their sister from now on.

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We then find out that Mem-didi has a daughter, Rita, who studies in an expensive finishing school in Shimla. Mem-didi works hard to makes end meet and pay the school fees – she regularly sends a money order to her daughter. She sells pickles to the grocer, takes up additional sewing work from the tailor and works into the wee hours of the night.

This is when the heroine makes an entry and how!

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Rita is a boisterous, pretty 18 year old, who has no clue about the difficulties her mom is facing. Her life is all about friends, teachers and love! She heads a club called the Boy Haters club in her school (while carrying on a secret dalliance with Dilip.)

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Meanwhile, Mem-didi and the two dadas bond and become good friends, going on picnics, sharing confidences and discussing philosophy. Mem-didi, by now, also has earned a reputation of being a miser. Her two friends come to her defence till things come to a head. Mem-didi refuses to donate some money for the chawl’s Holi celebration. Shera and Bahadur are angry with her; and she then breaks down and tells them what has happened. Earlier that day, her purse had been stolen as she was going to the post office to send a money order to Rita. Shera and Bahadur nab the thief and get her money back. An emotional scene follows, with Mrs Roy declaring Shera and Bahadur as Rita’s mamas.

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Meanwhile in Shimla, Rita, unaware of all the turmoil back home, is prancing about prettily with her friends, singing Bachpan O Bachpan. She also has a stealthy rendezvous with her boyfriend, Dilip (Kaysi Mehra) who we find out is very scared of his strict dad.

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Back home, Mem-didi‘s overworked and wrought nerves give way and she falls ill. Shera and Bahadur flex their muscles and drag the local doctor to check Mem-didi.

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Seeing that Mem-Didi has not regained consciousness, the men decide to write to Rita. Shortly a telegram arrives from Shimla: Rita is on her way. This coincides with the time that Mem-didi regains consciousness.

She is horrified to find out that Rita has been informed and she freaks out. And we get to know why! Rita is NOT her daughter. Mem-didi is her ayah and has taken care of her since childhood. Especially now, since Rita’s parents died. Rita’s parents had been wealthy but they did not leave any riches behind for their daughter. Mem-didi had been pretending all these days that the inheritance was intact. And to keep this pretence alive, has been slogging to keep Rita in that posh school.

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Does Rita find out the truth? How does Mem-didi continue paying the posh school fees? What happens to the Rita-Dilip love story? And what role do the two goons play in the scheme of things?

The rest of the movie answers these questions.

My two cents:

Mem-Didi is a delightful gem of a movie, with stellar performances by Jayant, David and Lalita Pawar. Jayant and David as Shera and Bahadur respectively are goofy and absolutely adorable. Their chemistry is top-notch, making all their scenes together stand out.

Like most of Mukherjee’s movies, it is a warm, endearing film. The ending, though predictable and melodramatic, is a bit sad.

Lalita Pawar is superb as the sacrificing but righteous Mem-didi. Her role is somewhat similar to her role in Anari.

Tanuja is simply perfect – as the fresh, young school girl. It does help that she looks like one too. She is bubbly, cute, and very charming. And one can see traces of both Nutan and Kajol in her gestures and performance.

Kaysi Mehra is cute (He reminded me just a wee bit of Joy Mukherjee.) Tanuja and Kaysi Mehra look sweet together.

Hari Shivdasani is competent as Dilip’s greedy rich father – the only ‘villain’ in this drama.

Music: Salil Chowdhury composed the music for this film. While this is not his best soundtrack, almost all the songs are good. My personal favourites are Bachpan o Bachpan, Bhula do zindagi ke ghum (plays during the opening credits) and Raaton ko jab neend ud jaaye.

The Beta wowow song is cute and innovative – both in the picturisation and the actual song. It is almost a duet sung by Lata Mangeshkar and a dog.

All in all, this is a very sweet film – definitely worth a watch, if you have not already.

And yes, belated happy birthday, Tanujaji!

9 thoughts on “Mem-didi (1961)

  1. Mem Didi is one of the drafts in my folder, waiting patiently to be turned into a post. 🙂 You pipped me to it. It is such a delightful little film, so Hrishikesh Mukherjee-ish in its small town glimpses. I’m glad you wrote it up. It deserves to be much better known than it is.

  2. I remember watching this one as a child (it was shown on DD), but have very little recollection of the movie itself. Though I do sing Beta bow-wow-wow mere kaan mat khaao to my toddler when she gets a little too exuberant!

    Must watch this again, sometime. I do love Tanuja, and Hrishikesh Mukherjee can always be relied upon to deliver.

      1. “Aww, poor baby!! – surely utna toh kaan nahin khaati!

        You have no idea! Jabber, jabber, jabber! She joins in very gamely by singing “Bow-wow-wow” when I sing this. 😀

  3. This film reads like it is fun, quirky and heart-warming. It didn’t even cross my mind that Mem-didi was not the mother, though it did seem strange that she let her daughter go to a fancy school while living in squalor herself.

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