Mem-Didi (1961)

Is this film famous and I the only person who was unaware of it until now? Amazing performances and great direction from Hrishikesh Mukherjee place it far above the usual, and the story is told with such exquisite economy of effort that it flies along, yet you feel at the end as if you have known and loved the characters for an entire lifetime. David and Jayant play Bahadur and Shera respectively—a pair of goondas strongly reminiscent of Munna and Circuit with their warm-hearted, funny and sometimes misguided largesse—who befriend an older woman (Lalita Pawar) whose life has been one of hardship and toil, but whose spirit has remained strong and pure. Add a very young and pretty Tanuja to the mix, along with Salil Chowdhury’s sparkling songs (including a hilarious duet between Tanuja and a stray dog!) and the result is a heartwarming and comic tour de force.

Bahadur Singh and Sher Khan live in a chawl where they rule with iron fists and usually well-intentioned hearts. Shera is a man of imposing size with a ferocious manner, while Bahadur is (marginally) the smart one.

They use intimidation and force as necessary to do right by the weak and oppressed in their locality, which earns them both respect and a measure of fear from the other inhabitants. When a new tenant arrives in the neighborhood one day and berates the pair for blocking the street with their games, they mock her (sarcastically calling her “Memsaab”) and she gives them each a tight slap.

Stunned, they stand there as everyone else scurries behind closed doors and the lady herself continues on her way. They cannot let this public humiliation pass, of course, although they discuss how hard she hit them with grudging admiration. Their own code of ethics won’t permit them to lay a hand on her person, but finally Bahadur hits upon a solution: they will invite her to sit down in a chair.

Having thus solved their dilemma, they proceed to the lady’s house where she utterly confounds them by welcoming them gladly and asking them to help her with a heavy trunk and to move some furniture. When—after much confusion and frustration on their part—she eventually understands their original mission, she sits down in a chair and demands that they throw her out, asking them if this is how women in their area are always treated.

Her tirade turns into weeping (as such things do) and the two men, shamed by her words and uncomfortable with her tears, beg her to desist and vow that she is now their sister: they will call her Mem-Didi and give her nothing but love and respect. It is a wonderful scene, full of squishy dil but not overwrought or melodramatic. Just pitch-perfect. I scribble on my notepad: “I LOVE THIS MOVIE!”

Mem-Didi sends money orders regularly to her daughter Rita (Tanuja) to pay for her expensive fees at Mrs. Davidson’s Finishing Institute in Simla. Tanuja’s entrance in this film is possibly the best heroine entrance ever:

Actually, the way all the main characters are introduced onscreen is quite wonderful. Mem-Didi is shown from her shiny shoes and stout stockings up to her disapproving face; Shera from his dusty slippers all the way up his tall frame; and Bahadur Singh like this:

Anyway, Rita is a beautiful and lively girl with lots of friends and not a care in the world except the travails of young love. Tanuja reminds me a lot of her daughter Kajol in this film.

Despite the Boy Hater’s Club, there is a boy named Dilip whom she clearly loves a lot although they appear to quarrel frequently too.

Back at the chawl, Mem-Didi is imparting words of wisdom to her new friends and has become part of daily life there, although one neighbor gripes that she is a miser. She works her fingers to the bone, selling lentils and pickle at the grocer’s and taking in sewing from the local tailor. She runs her sewing machine one night, turning a pile of cloth into clothing as the candles burn lower in her room.

Despite her hard work, she never has any money to spare because she is sending every penny to her daughter. Then thief Jaggu steals her purse containing 300 rupees that she has slaved for, and she is crushed. That same evening, Bahadur and Shera visit her to collect a donation for their Holi celebrations.

Having thrashed someone for calling her kanjoos, they have sworn on their honor that she will give money to them and are angry when she refuses. Finally she breaks down and explains what has happened, and they recover her money from Jaggu. Mem-Didi gratefully tells them that she will write to Rita that the money has been sent by her mamaji, which pleases Bahadur and Shera enormously.

At school, Rita seems blissfully unaware of all the sacrifices her mother is making for her. We are treated to a pretty song, “Bachpan O Bachpan” whose lyrics (Shailendra) I simply love. She meets Dilip (Kaysi Mehra, who reminds me of a cross between Aamir Khan and Rajendranath with a wink at Dev Anand).

Dilip’s father (Hari Shivdasani) is very wealthy, very greedy, and very strict, and Dilip is a bit afraid of him—but he is just as clearly smitten with Rita as she is with him.

Then an overworked Mem-Didi falls seriously ill, and Bahadur and Shera decide that they must write to Rita. There are some hilarious scenes between them and Rashid Khan as the local doctor, who is literally strong-armed into treating their Madam-Sister before his other patients.

When she recovers and Rita sends a telegram that she is coming, Mem-Didi is distraught and horrified. She tells Bahadur and Shera that Rita is not actually her daughter, but the orphaned daughter of wealthy parents who, when they died, had nothing left of their former riches. Mem-Didi was Rita’s ayah, and has kept up the illusion with Rita that her inheritance is intact by working herself to the bone and keeping Rita in her posh school. Now, she fears, Rita will discover the truth.

When Rita does arrive, Mem-Didi tells her that she has rented out the lavish bungalow that Rita grew up in and prefers the company in the crowded chawl. Rita accepts this, and is very happy to see her old nanny again, and makes friends with her two “uncles.” She also attracts the attention of a stray dog and they literally “sing” a duet which is FAB.

Even better, Rita’s uncles drive the dog away when she goes in to get him some milk, and when she cries because of it they go off and find every stray dog in the area and bring them all home for her! She returns to school, where the headmistress informs her that her school fees are in arrears for the past three months. Mem-Didi has been too ill to earn money; when she gets Rita’s letter asking for the fees she sees no option but to write Rita back with the truth about the situation.

But Bahadur and Shera are convinced that they can save their now-beloved Mem-Didi and Rita from disaster. They intercept the letter and set off for Simla, determined to keep Rita from discovering the truth and Mem-Didi’s dreams for her intact.

Can they do it? What will happen when our two lovable badmashes meet upper-crust society? Will Rita and Dilip be able to get married?

I laughed, I cried, I LOVED this. Jayant, David and Lalita Pawar are just sublime: their chemistry together, and their individual performances, are perfect. Tanuja is a lovely sidekick, the songs are really fun, and the layers of the story and characterizations are masterfully painted. If you haven’t seen it, do. You will be glad you did, or Gemma and I will sing a duet for you—aap ki kasam.

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75 Comments to “Mem-Didi (1961)”

  1. It is reasonably well-known and is an adaptation of the Hollywood film Lady for a Day itself re-made as A Pocketful of Miracles. In fact, Hrishida himself re-made the film as Achha Bura (1983).

    • Really? I will have to look for that, have never heard of it—although how Hrishida thought he could improve upon this one escapes me :) (Haven’t seen the Hollywood ones either, are they good? Have you?)…

      • “Lady for a Day” was directed by that ever-optimist Frank Capra, who then remade it years later as “Pocketful of Miracles”. Betty Davis played the “Memdidi” role and Ann-Margaret played the Tanuja one. Incidentally, “Pocketful..” was Capra’s last movie, and Ann-Margaret’s first.

        I also remember seeing a Jackie Chan remake of this plot in the ’90s… I think it was called “Lady Rose” or something like that. Quite funny, that one.

        • Frank Capra and Hrishikesh Mukherjee have lots in common :) (and Raju Hirani’s style reminds me of both of them too)…if I have time for Hollywood soon I’ll look for those, thanks!

          • Actually the angle has been used as recently as Singh is Kingg with the track of Kirron Kher and her daughter Katrina Kaif.

          • “Pocketful of Miracles” is rather sappy, as I recall, but “Lady for a Day” is smart and funny, with lots of eccentric characters, and character actors, including ace 30s cad Warren William. The source material (Damon Runyon, of “Guys and Dolls”) and the script (by Robert Riskin, who wrote “It Happened One Night”) contribute to the fun.

          • @Karan: but I refuse to watch anything with a name that is spelled Kingg :D

            Laura: Okay, I will look for Lady for a Day…how I love eccentricity! I embrace it! I LIVE IT!!!!

      • I’d heard of the movie before and wanted to see it but didn’t know it was a remake of Lady for a Day. Of the two, LfaD is definitely much better than PoM as Laura says.

        Have you seen Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day? I believe the book on which its based was written around the same period as the original Capra film and the movie itself has managed to retain that flavor of witty fairy tale.

        I’m definitely going to find a copy of this! Preferably from the same company as yours – that looks like an excellent copy. Which one is it?

        • There is Dharamendra-Mumtaz’s Loafer, as well, with Om Prakash being the Lalita Pawar character and Farida Jalal playing his daughter. And I didnt know Pocketful of Miracles was a remake – will look out for original.

          • The rest of the story isn’t much like Loafer, but I do love that movie too :) Mumtaz and Dharmendra in their stylin’ 70s mode. Dreamy.

        • Amrita, if you are asking about Mem-Didi, I have to ask you if you are blind? :D Or just immune to logos now? Shemaroo, and it is a good print and doesn’t seem to be edited down (much), although if there were songs missing of course I wouldn’t be surprised. But it’s not choppy :)

          Will have to look for Miss Pettigrew now too! Sigh. I just don’t have time for all these films…

        • @Amrita: I really liked “Miss Pettigrew…”. The author of the original book, Winifred Watson, seemed to have been a character herself, with some delightful one-liners. Check out this news item about her finding fame (again!) at the young age of 94.

  2. Saw this movie about a year ago but had forgotten some of the details. Your wonderful review brought it all back. I just LOVE this movie – it is very sweet, the acting is just top-class. It shows humanity in its best light and I could not help wishing that people were more like this, instead of killing each other. The songs are lovely too.

    • It is wonderful :) Jayant and David are hilarious together…I just kept thinking of Munna and Circuit’s wonderful chemistry, it was very reminiscent of that. And I love Lalita, am always really happy to see her in a “nice” role (although she is an awesome mean person too).

      • U said it Memsaab, awesome but she can be mean, thats Lalita Power for us, she is the usual mean step mother(of Shyama) in DO DULHE, her hubby, downtrodden and helpless is Dalpat, can yu blve it, Dalpat is the second fiddle. .)

        Do Dulhe is also entertainingly funny with a simple and cute story line.
        It will come up on one of my sites on the other side !!

        Cheers .)

        • Dalpat? Really? That I must see!

          No subs though I am guessing… :(

          • Yes indeed
            and one another feature I rarely come across in ye oldie goldies is the songs. Now here is a movie which has only a few songs in the first CD, and better half of the second CD, then zoooom, last 40 mins or so we have a bonanza of what…. 8 songs. Usually they are spread, this was amazing really and as I am PHANKA=FAN of these goldies, it was just g8 listening to Geeta Roy aka Dutt, Lata,Rafi, Talat, Asha…..

            And by jove I have never seen Sajjan in such a stupendous role esp the second half. I will not reveal the story, yu just watch it, sry Memsaab no Subs but the story line is so simple yu wil know what is happening. Do drop a line about Sajjans performance in the 2nd CD…….2nd half.

            Haan grab a desi friend yr end and make him sit and help with some translations… offer a cold beer .).)

            Ah be warned folks… yu gotta be lovers of ye oldie goldies to enjoy this.
            MD is B S KALLA
            Lyrics Pandit Indra

            Cheers .)

          • Oops Oops, pls excuse me it is not our buddy Dalpat in DO DULHE but our very regular B M VYAS, seen him in umpteen movies esp Wadias. I have always mixed these 2 gentlemen since decades….. but both are equally superb actors.
            Cheers .)

  3. I have heard about this movie. I will surely see it. Your review is an incentive.

  4. I have never heard of this movie! Thanks for bringing this to our attention memsaab!

  5. Lovely review as usual from Memsaab’s stable! Alas I will have to wait until my next visit to India coz I will never find this Down Under for sure!

    • Well, it’s good enough reason to return there!

      • If it is a Shemaroo DVD then I am quite likely to find it on my next visit.

        Shemaroo does have this annoying habit of its logo staring at your face in all the scenes! I noticed it while watching
        Blackmail recently

        • They do…and they are really in general no better at NOT cutting up a film than any of the other India-based manufacturers.

          I am lucky to have Blackmail from BEI, which made a great effort and sadly has now gone out of business I think.

          • oh that is sad. I am seem to have
            quite a few Shemaroo ones in my pile!
            I will watch out for jumps and cuts
            now that you have warned me!

          • You don’t have to watch out for them, they are pretty obvious…there’s not much of an alternative, unfortunately.

  6. I saw this movie only by chance on cable. But only seen it up to the point she goes back to school, and the fees crisis happens, for some reason. I’d loved it even up to that point.

    All my favourite actors, including Tanuja. For once, a heroine who actually looks like a school girl, haa?

    And the duet with the dog IS fab!

  7. A movie where you identify yourself and no doubt super performers, all veterans of the trade, and who else but Hrishida to make it possible. 10 OUT OF 10 for this phillum. already seen it 5 times since it’s release.

    A must see for good cinema fans.
    Cheers .)

  8. I wanted to recommend this film when i read you previous post about Lalita Pawar. But i couldn’t recall the name :) I always rembered it as The Lalita Pawar film.

  9. I have always wanting to see thsi movie, bu tcould never get hold of it though!
    Lalita Pawar and Hrishikesh Mulkherjee pairing ought to be good!
    Thanks for reminding me of it again!

  10. I’ve seen this years and years ago as a kid, but remember nothing of it. It obviously merits a rewatch!

  11. Hey I also meant to ask if anyone knows anything about Kaysi Mehra? According to imdb he was only in one other film, Nutan’s Chhabili…just curious. He is very handsome and did just fine in his role too…

  12. I wonder how old Tanuja was when she did this movie? 15-16, I’m guessing. It’d be interesting to contrast her role and performance in Mem Didi with the similar part she played in her breakthrough movie, Hamari Yaad Aayegi which also released in 1961.

    While I enjoyed the performances of the three veteran character actors, it was Tanuja (and Salil C.’s music) that made Mem Didi for me – both just sparkle.

  13. Of course! :-)
    This is one of my best loved films. I do try and watch Hrishikesh Mukherji films (parakh, anuradha etc) and hope to watch all of them.

    I love your description of Kaysi Mehra.
    >a cross between Aamir Khan and Rajendranath with a wink at Dev Anand).

    • He has a very interesting (and handsome) face, and I kept getting flashes of all three of them :)

    • Another not-so-well known movie of Hirhsida but worth watching is “Majhli Didi” (1967). The film starred Dharmendra, Meena Kumari and Sachin (as a young boy in this movie).

  14. Oooh this sounds like my kind of film – all my favorite actors and just the right sort of low-key, heart-warming comedy. And from Hrishikesh Mukherjee too… Cant believe I havent seen it so far, though of course, I’ve hear of it. Need to find this ASAP! :-)

    Pacifist, Parakh isnt Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s film. He may have done the editing, but the film was directed by Bimal Roy and was Salil Choudhary’s brain child.

  15. good story. if I were watch it in Video with wmv format, any way I enjoy reading your story.

  16. Gr8 post !!!
    I just read your post, Trivia Time # 40
    Wanted to read Lalita Pawar’s interview but was unable to open the PDF file.
    Can you please repost it ?
    Do check out my Trivia Blog;

    • Try saving the pdf file to your hard drive and opening it with Acrobat instead of your browser. There’s nothing wrong with the pdf file but some people have browsers which are incompatible with my version.

      • If I may add pls
        if yu are using FF as your browser, use their FOXIT Reader plug in, there shud be no problem. Good luck.


  17. The “dog song” is my absolute favourite. Thanks to the addictive tune and Tanuja’s elfin charm, I can never get enough of this song

  18. It brought back childhood/girlhood memories when I saw at least 2 games being played – one of them in song.

    Hu tu tu (officially known as kabaddi).
    Loved the way the song compares marriage to a game of hu tu tu.
    Wasn’t there a film some time ago called Khel Kabaddi or something with Konkona? There too they compared marriage to it. Inspired by Memdidi song?

    The other was ‘pithoo’.
    The game that was being played when Lalita Pawar comes along and scolds them – the pile of small ties toppled with a ball etc etc.
    Along with gilli/gulli danda this was a popular street game.

    Do people/children still play these games?
    Oh, and not forgetting kho :-D

    • Oh I wondered what they were playing in the street at the beginning :) Thanks! Knew about Hu Tu Tu (great song, that) but had no idea about the other one. Looked like a game of marbles except with big rocks or something :D

    • It’s been 28-30 years since I saw, read or heard anything about Pithoo. We used to play it in school. I have never heard of hu tu tu, it was always just kabaddi. Kho was another typically Indian game. That’s one reason among many that I like Bollywood. All these things I’d mostly forgotten like Dharmendra shooting at Dalda tins in “Mera gaon mera desh”.

    • The last I saw ‘Pithoo’ game in a film was in the opening sequence of ‘Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam’

    • Can any1 name artists playing Hu.Tu, Tu (Kabaddi song in MemDidi film????

  19. That is what I like about Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s films, he takes up fairy tales, peppers them up with modern snippets, makes them down to earth and thus presnts you with a story which you can believe in and not only that he also makes you believe that they are realistic.
    But they remain fairy tales!

    Talking about Munnabhai and Circuit, I think a remake would be great with Sanjay Dutt, Ashad WArsi, Rekha and Genelia D’Souza in the main roles

  20. Oh goodness, this sounds lovely. I’ve never actually seen a picture of Tanuja whens she was young–she was very pretty, wasn’t she? The story and acting all look amazing, and I agree with you about the heroine introduction–great!

  21. Jewel Thief will be my own private treat on friday eevening!

  22. This is an incredible blog you have maintained. I don’t even remember how I came to this particular post, but I have to thank you because now I have watched an awesome movie! :)

    This is definitely vintage Hrishida. Simple story, getting the most of the actors. Satyakam still remains my favorite Hrishida film, but this is gold as well.

    Kind regards,

    And now off to read some other blog entries :)

  23. Oh it most definitely is a treat! Thank god I found it on the Rajshri site.

    On a side note reading your blogs about Shammi Kapoor has really made my day. He was my dad’s fave actor and I remember Dad telling us about how they would watch a Shammi movie at least ten times in college!
    I grew up on his movies because thats all we got to watch for movie night at home ;)
    Teesri Manzil is my favourite, though I quite like all his movies, even his latter day ones like Sachai and Andaz.


  24. This movie was re-made in the 80’s with Anita Raaj playing Tanuja’s character and Raj Babbar as her boyfriend. I just can’t remember who played Mem Didi and her two well-wishers, though. The film was meant as a tribute to the original, with a homage to David and Jayant before the title card.

  25. The description of Kaysi Mehra as a crods between Aamir Khan and Rajindernath is perfect.
    As was Memsaab.

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