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.