I was writing the answer to Trivia question #4, and was going on and on, when I realized that the film should just have a post unto itself. Mem Sahib is one of my favorite Shammi Kapoor movies—he gives a remarkably restrained and subtle performance in it, resisting the hamming that he often displayed at the height of his career. He is charming but not overbearing. And though it is early in his career (what he calls his “male starlet” days), he plays a negative character—long before Shah Rukh “broke tradition” by playing negative characters in Baazigar and Darr.
Meena Kumari is scintillating—a far cry from the teary, self-sacrificing woman I’m used to seeing “The Tragedy Queen” play. She is gorgeous and full of life, a real treat to watch. Kishore Kumar plays Sundar, a naive, sheltered and good-hearted man trying to figure out how to exist in a world completely at odds with what he is used to or expected; the film is peppered with the humor that he is so clever at.
Another thing I really like about this film is that while upholding the usual Indian values of modesty, family, etc., it also makes a good case for progress—women’s education, for instance. Sundar in the beginning is very religious/traditional in his values—but is portrayed as suffocatingly pompous at the same time. Meena’s uncle is surprisingly open-minded, and Meena herself—though sophisticated and educated—is a loving, warm-hearted girl. In the end, a fair balance between the extremes is struck (unlike Manoj Kumar’s films [Purab Aur Paschim et al] in which all that was western was evil, and all that was eastern/Indian was pure).
Mem Sahib is an entertaining story of a girl and a boy who are engaged to be married by their parents when they are children. They meet after they have grown up: she as a “modern” girl in the city and he as a devotee in an ashram. They are now complete opposites in their philosophies and ways of life. Or are they? Meena (Meena Kumari) is an orphaned heiress who has been brought up by her indulgent uncle. She is a chic, cosmopolitan young woman, independent and intelligent, with lots of friends and a soft spot for her dogs. She has decided that she will marry Manohar (Shammi Kapoor), a charming scoundrel and n’er-do-well who is romancing her for her money.
Meanwhile Sundar (Kishore Kumar) has spent the last 12 years in an ashram, and is now ready to leave it and marry her. His guru tells him that he must go forth and wage war against sin by immersing himself in the sinful world. Armed with his holy books and traditional ideals he comes to get Meena. At their first meeting he discovers that she may not buy into his ideas of a dutiful wife:
She retorts that he will have duties as well when she goes out at night to the club or the cinema:
They engage in a lengthy debate over traditional versus modern ways of living, and Sundar leaves determined to get her back on the path of righteousness. For her part, Meena is resolved to marry Manohar although she feels a little guilty about abandoning her dead father’s wishes. Her uncle says that she needs to see Sundar’s good qualities as well as teach him about her good qualities. Then she can decide on the right one for her, and he will support her.
Meanwhile, we see Manohar with his girlfriend, a dancing girl (Kum Kum). She knows he isn’t faithful to her and they fight; but she relents because she is besotted with him.
Sundar’s efforts to teach Meena from his holy books and pictures of devout women doesn’t go well. He arrives at her house to find her singing with Manohar:
When he berates her for her unseemly behavior, she teases him with another lesson in a husband’s duties:
Manohar and Sundar then have an argument about sin, and Manohar tells Sundar that to win a woman like Meena he must turn himself into Manohar. They leave laughing together, and Meena’s uncle comes in. He tells Sundar to be pragmatic: that a woman brought up like Meena will never accept a sage as her husband. He says that if Sundar truly wants to marry Meena he will have to become like Manohar.
Sundar struggles to understand why his strict ideals are not compatible with modern life. He is torn between his upbringing and his longing for a wife and a normal life with her. Manohar meanwhile gets shocking news from Meena’s uncle about a condition in her father’s will: if she marries Manohar and not Sundar, she must give up all her wealth to Sundar.
Sundar decides “to become like Manohar”. He gets his hair cut and then (in a very funny scene) goes to a department store to shop for clothes. He finds the experience shocking in the extreme and flees:
He buys some clothes at a roadside stall instead, unfortunately without any expert sales advice. When Meena sees the results she is highly entertained:
Manohar arrives and also makes fun of Sundar. Meena scolds him for teasing “an angel”—it’s clear that she has developed some affection for this simpleton. Sundar asks Manohar to help him in his quest to become more like him and Manohar readily agrees. He clearly doesn’t consider Sundar a threat to his suit. He tells Meena when they are alone about her father’s condition—she is outraged and he encourages her outrage by commenting on how she has been “sold in childhood”.
Manohar and Sundar now go out on the town. They go to a brothel, where Manohar encourages Sundar to have a drink and helps him cope with the taste by holding his nose—a technique I myself used to use when my mother made me eat brussel sprouts or lima beans:
Sundar takes pretty readily to the high life and Manohar leaves him with some friends, going to Meena’s house where they sneak into her uncle’s safe and steal the will out of it. However, they discover the next day that Sundar’s mother also has a copy of the will. Manohar instigates Meena into pretending to be in love with Sundar, so that she can get his copy of the will from him. She spends the day with Sundar (they sing of course) and helps pick out some respectable clothing for him. He falls hook, line and sinker for her deception and happily agrees to give her the will. Believing that she loves him, he suggests that they burn the will. In the end, Meena can’t bring herself to do it though. She confronts Manohar with the idea that he loves her money and not her, and says she doesn’t want her money—Sundar can have it. He reassures her that he still wants to marry her:
What a charmer!
Of course, he has no intention of giving up Meena’s wealth. He takes the stolen will to a lawyer, who points out that if Sundar is found unworthy of Meena (if he is crippled, blind, a vagabond or badmaash—these all seem to be equally reprehensible qualities) then she gets to keep her legacy and marry elsewhere.
Bingo! This is just what Manohar needs. What does he do? Does Meena find out the truth? Does she find true love? Well, probably…but take a dekho, it’s time well spent. One last note (no pun intended) on Madan Mohan’s music: it is lovely and melodic and fits the movie well.