Saturday, February 02, 2019

The flashback series: why you should watch Mem Didi (1961)

[The second in my 1950s-1960s series for Film Companion – this one about a very charming film that I have also written about in my Hrishikesh Mukherjee book. The first piece, on Kala Bazaar, is here]

Title: Mem Didi
Director: Hrishikesh Mukherjee
Year: 1961
Cast: Lalita Pawar, David, Jayant, Tanuja, Kaysi Mehra

Why you should watch it:

For the beautiful chemistry between three elderly character actors

It is generally agreed that Hindi cinema is currently in a very good phase for the “character role” – such as the middle-aged parents played by Neena Gupta and Gajraj Rao in Badhaai Ho, who would rarely if ever have been placed front and centre in a mainstream film of an earlier age.

But consider Mem Didi. This film has a bubbly romantic track all right, featuring two appealing if inexperienced young actors: the 17-year-old Tanuja and the Aamir Khan-lookalike Kaysi Mehra. In the second half, the narrative focuses on the obstacles facing the happiness of these lovebirds; they get disproportionate space on posters and DVD covers too. However, the real centerpiece of this film, and the single most compelling thing about it, is the marvelous interplay between three unglamorous character actors who were better known for small stock parts in movies of the time. David Abraham, Jayant, and Lalita Pawar bring credibility to every scene they are in, and are responsible for making the village in which much of the story is set feel like a real, lived-in place.

A brief synopsis. Bahadur Singh (David) and Sher Khan (Jayant) are two lovable rogues who exercise a benevolent dominance over their community, but meet their match when Rosy (Pawar), swinging her umbrella and fists, moves in and demonstrates that “didi-giri” can trump “dada-giri”. The initial clash of wills gives way to comradeship, and soon the two men become godfather figures to Rosy’s teenage foster daughter Rita (Tanuja), who is in a hill-station boarding school.

For being the first truly lighthearted and whimsical Hrishikesh Mukherjee film – pointing to the way ahead

This was Mukherjee’s fourth film as director, made when he was starting to come into his own, breaking out of the shadow of his mentor Bimal Roy and his close friend Raj Kapoor. Hrishi-da’s directorial debut Musafir (1957) was made largely with Roy’s crew; his second, Anari (1959), was shot at RK Studios and feels like a Raj Kapoor-helmed film, a lighter version of Awaara perhaps. It was with the third and fourth films, Anuradha and Mem Didi respectively, that Hrishi-da truly began his own innings. And of all these, Mem Didi is the first film where the dominant quality was breeziness – with comedy getting the upper hand in the comedy-drama jugalbandhi that would persist throughout his long career.

This is not to say that Mem Didi doesn’t have a few maudlin moments – it does. But given that the basic plot involves a poor old woman toiling away to get her child through school (now there’s a trope from movie melodrama if there ever was one!), it’s remarkable how the film steers clear of prolonged sentimentalism and always finds a way to veer back to the chirpy or the idiosyncratic.

And again, much of the credit goes to the performances of the three senior actors. Casting the hard-edged Lalilta Pawar in a role like this was a master touch: much like Thelma Ritter in the Hollywood of the 1950s, Pawar had the ability to undercut a sentimentally written scene with her dry personality. Even when Rosy is weeping or fretting, you know a zinger or a sharp glance is just around the corner.

Similarly, having the stout and genial David – of Bene Israeli background – play a proud Rajput would never have made sense on paper, but it works brilliantly in practice. And the big burly Jayant, with his Pathan accent, might remind you of Baloo the bear shuffling around. With two other actors in these roles, the characters might have come across as mean or nasty (in scenes like the one where Bahadur flexes his muscles to intimidate a doctor, or where they coolly change the time on a restaurant clock after arriving late for dinner) – but these two are consistently endearing. Some of the looks they exchange – after their first, emasculating encounter with Rosy, for instance – are worth the price of admission. Watch how they go in the blink of an eye from strutting around like wannabe Samurais in a Kurosawa film to walking away sheepishly, with hands behind their back, like errant schoolboys, after being chastened.

In fact, in the early scenes, the film’s plot often plays second fiddle to Bahadur and Sher Khan’s desultory conversations. There are many casual little moments, which exist almost for their own sake – or to create a certain mood – rather than to take the narrative forward.

For Tanuja, singing and dancing with a dog

In Anari, Raj Kapoor briefly cavorts with a street dog while singing “Kisi Ki Muskurahaton Pe”. In Mem Didi, Hrishikesh Mukherjee – so well-known for being a canine lover that a 1970s magazine profile of him was titled “Hrishi-da in a house full of bitches”! – takes the theme a few steps forward by picturizing a song sequence that is entirely built around a conversation between Rita and a village stray. “Beta, wah wah wah!” she sings (you’ll find the words listed as “Beta, woof woof woof!” in some places), while the dog adds its own howl to the chorus and then prances around holding an umbrella.

It’s a lovely, spontaneous little moment. It’s also one of the few times in the film that the pretty young heroine gets to be as funny and as cool as the old folk.

Trivia: Mem Didi was loosely based on Frank Capra’s 1933 film Lady for a Day, itself taken from a Depression-era Damon Runyon story. Coincidentally, Capra remade Lady for a Day as A Pocketful of Miracles in 1961 – the film was released just a few months after Mem Didi. (And to extend the remake theme, Hrishikesh Mukherjee remade Mem Didi in 1983 as Accha Bura, with Amjad Khan playing the role his father Jayant had played in the original.)

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