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16 May 2013

Mem Sahib (1956)

Directed by: RC Talwar
Music: Madan Mohan
Starring: Meena Kumari, Shammi Kapoor, Kishore Kumar, 
Pratima Devi, Gyani
I suddenly felt like I'd been ignoring Shammi Kapoor for a while. So, why not review a film that I have been meaning to for ages? One where he co-stars with Meena Kumari (one of my favourite actresses) and that showcases him in a very different role? He is still charming as always, but this film, made in the days before he became the Junglee, is probably one of his most restrained performances. What is more, he is not the hero, he does not get to walk away with the heroine, and he plays a negative character. Phew!

It also has Meena in one of her many lighter roles, though even here, she is playing a woman with the courage of her convictions. (Even if she is slightly wacky about her dogs.) Her aunt doesn’t take very kindly to the idea of Meena throwing a birthday party for the pups. Her uncle (Gyani?) is more understanding, even though he does admonish her for reading English novels when she should be spending her time reading religious texts. Meena is unrepentant. 
If someone is willing to understand her, she says, she is more than willing to understand them. But she is not going to learn religious texts just so she can marry the vidwan (scholar) she has been engaged to since birth. She is the one who is getting married; she will decide to whom. 

And so she does, by inserting an advertisement in the matrimonial column. The ad brings in all the impecunious young men in the city, and one very intelligent man, Manohar (Shammi Kapoor), who plays his cards very well indeed. Meena is both attracted to, and disturbed by his behaviour. Her aunt, of course, is not very happy to see the long line of prospective suitors, but her uncle seems to prefer mimicking Nero (albeit with a tanpura). 
While Meena insouciantly introduces Manohar as her prospective groom, her aunt cannot help but intercede – Meena’s marriage has already been fixed. Much to her aunt’s indignation, Meena refutes her father’s right to choose a groom for her.  The best her aunt can do is to get them to wait until Sunder returns from his guru’s ashram.  
Sunder (Kishore Kumar) is at the end of his rigorous penance; but his guru tells him he has another, greater penance in store – to go out into a sinful world and save those unfortunate souls who have lost themselves in its illusions. He has to wage war against sin using three weapons – the foundation of dharm (religion or duty), the strength of karm (deed or act) and the sacrifice of swarth (selfishness). 
And so, Sunder, armed thus, with his religious learning and his holy books in hand, arrives home to a doting mother (Pratima Devi). However, she is also practical. She wants him to take charge of his own household. 
Sunder’s father had sent him to the ashram so he could  be educated; he had no wish to see his son as a sadhu. It is time for him to meet Meena, the girl to whom he is betrothed. Meena, she says, is waiting eagerly for Sunder’s arrival. Of course she is!
Obviously, their first meeting does not go well. For Sunder.  His first setback comes when Meena pokes holes in his ideas of using only the things that God made (he refuses to sit on the sofa). She happily informs him that the train in which he travelled to arrive at their home was made by man. Sunder informs her that she cannot understand the difference because she is a woman, and a woman’s intellect is nowhere close to a man’s. Her uncle is amused at the interaction; her aunt is impressed by Sunder, while Meena wavers between laughter and irritation. 

His ideas of what a dutiful wife should do (treat the husband as God and serve him) receive a major shock when he hears her ideas of what a dutiful husband should do (serve her breakfast, wait for her to come back at night from the club or the cinema, not intrude when she is talking to her friends, especially the males)... Sunder goes away sure that Meena needs to be brought back to the path of virtuous womanhood. 
Meena is conflicted, especially when her uncle tells her that Sunder’s ideas are a result of his education, just as much as her ideas were formed by her education. All he asks is that she gives Sunder a fair chance, even as she sees if Manohar is worthy of her. He will support her whatever she decides. 

Manohar, in the meanwhile, is with his girlfriend Kamini (Kum Kum). She knows he is dangling after an heiress and is furious. Manohar fans the flames a bit: Tu nahin, aur sahi; aur nahi, aur sahi he tells her. This results in a fight, but she soon relents. 
Sunder hasn’t forgotten his mission – to teach Meena how devout wives should behave. When Sunder arrives at her house, however, with his books and pictures of ‘virtuous women’, he finds her in Manohar's arms, singing a duet with him.
He is disgusted at her unseemly behaviour. Meena is not as bothered by his disgust as he thinks she should be. Instead, she gives him another lesson in how the ideal husband should behave, while Manohar adds fuel to fire by debating the definitions of sin. 
As Manohar leaves with Meena, he admonishes Sunder – if Sunder wants to win Meena, then he should be Manohar.  

Meena’s uncle is not unsympathetic to Sunder’s dilemma. He is pragmatic, however, and tells Sunder that a girl like Meena will never marry someone like Sunder. When Sunder blames Manohar for ‘stealing’ his Meena away, the uncle corrects him – Meena has never seen Sunder as a prospective groom. She is educated, intelligent, born and raised in the lap of luxury; Sunder as he is, will never appeal to her. He advices Sunder to forget Meena. 
Meanwhile, Manohar approaches Meena’s uncle for his blessings. They would like to get married, he says. Meena’s uncle is all for the marriage. After all, how can he sunder two loving hearts? But the wily old man has an ace up his sleeve – Meena’s father’s will states that if Meena marries anyone other than Sunder, the latter will be heir to all her wealth. 

Sunder is on his way to become ‘like Manohar’. First comes a haircut. Then, he decides to go shopping. That experience is more than he can take, and he flees without buying anything. Finally, he chooses a ragtag collection of clothes from a street stall and presents himself in his full glory to Meena. 
She is amused, but also touched when he explains that he did it all to win her. In fact, when Manohar arrives and mocks Sunder, she tells him off, but runs after him when Manohar leaves (pretend) displeased. Manohar uses this opportunity to tell her that if she marries him, she will lose her wealth and property. Meena is incensed. That is unjust! Manohar does what he does best – fan the flames – she’s been ‘sold’. 

As he leaves, Sunder waylays him – in order to win Meena, he would like Manohar’s help and guidance. Prompted by an imp of mischief, and regarding him as not much of a threat, Manohar agrees. So begins Sunder’s education in ‘city ways’. First stop, a brothel, where Manohar teaches Sunder to drink. 
Leaving him there with his friends, Manohar, along with Meena, steals the will out of her uncle’s safe.  The next morning, Manohar’s father comes to Meena’s uncle to beg his support for Meena’s marriage to his son. When Meena’s uncle realises that the will has been stolen, he has no doubts about who did it. But they will never profit from the crime, he warns his visitor, because Sunder’s mother has a copy. 

Manohar plays to win; this is but a minor setback. He plants the idea of Meena getting the will from Sunder by pretending to fall in love with him. Meena falls for the idea; she even helps Sunder pick out a better outfit.
They spend the day together (time for the beautiful Dil se milakar dekho).  He is a bit bewildered by her seeming change of heart but she soon convinces him that she loves him. 
So much so he is willing to destroy the will for love of her. But when he begins to burn it, Meena finds that she cannot go through with the deception.

When she returns home, Sunder’s mother, who has followed her, accuses Meena of destroying her son’s life.  
Meena is already ashamed of herself. Distressed, she, in turn, accuses Manohar of wooing her for her money; if he truly loved her, he would take her as she is. He explains that he wanted the money for her – how would she, brought up in the lap of luxury, leave that lifestyle to lead a life of penury with him? Meena is adamant; Sunder can have all her money. Will Manohar still marry her, penniless as she is?  

Of course! Manohar reassures her; why would she think otherwise?  
But this is a second setback that Manohar had not anticipated. Leaving her, he takes the will to a lawyer – is there any way of overturning it? The lawyer cannot help him, but yes, there is a clause – if Sunder is ineligible to marry Meena (if he has a debilitating disease,  is crippled or blind, is proven to be a vagabond or immoral) then she is free to marry elsewhere without losing her inheritance.  

Does this give Manohar another chance to get his hands on Meena’s wealth? Will Meena realise his true colours in time? What will happen to Sunder now? And what about Kamini? What will she do when she realises her boyfriend's perfidy? 
Shammi, as Manohar, the cad trying to win his way to riches by marrying an heiress, played the part with aplomb. He is a cad, but a charming one nevertheless. He is pitch perfect in the film, completely villainous, totally unrepentant, and as drool worthy as ever (even with his mouche). 
Kishore Kumar, as the naive young man who, brought up in an ashram, is finding himself a square peg trying to fit into a round hole, is also restrained. (The fact that neither man hams, is in itself, a relief. Both are remarkably subtle and underplay their characters, and the film gains as a result.) And while he is a pompous stuffed shirt in the beginning, full of theories of how a ‘good wife’ should be, he is teased out of it by the vivacious Meena

Meena refuses to apologise for who and what she is, and if he will marry her, he has to accept her as she is. It is interesting to see that it is the man who is forced to change in this film, and that ‘modern’ does not necessarily equal ‘evil’. Full marks to the script writer for a balanced and objective viewpoint. 

This is also one of Meena Kumari’s non-tragedy roles.  The more I see of my favourite actress’ work, the more I wonder why she ended up with the ‘Tragedy Queen’ tag. Nargis, or even Nutan, fit that description so much better.  Meena Kumari is absolutely wonderful in this role as the educated, city-bred (read 'modern'), wealthy Meena. She is a wee bit spoilt, but on the whole, she is both loving and generous to a fault. Her interactions with her uncle, who is her guardian, are also characterised by these traits. 

While the film follows the path of ‘betrothed when they were babies’, Meena’s uncle seems rather open to forgetting such rubbish and supporting Meena in making her own decisions. All he asks of her is that she gives her ‘fiancé’ a fair chance.  

All in all, Mem Sahib  is an interesting film, and a heavily underrated one. Lightly (and objectively) handled, even the usual clash between ‘traditional Indian’ and ‘modern/Western’ values is settled in a manner that does not paint one or the other with the usual broad flourishes. In my opinion, it is a film that every one of the leads would have been proud to have on their résumés.  

You can watch it on Tom Daniel's channel here. 


  1. I remember having read a review of Memsahib on Greta's blog a few years back - and hadn't known of any film till then which featured Shammi in a negative role. I'd mostly forgotten about the plot of this film (even though I remembered who starred in it), but it sounds good. And eye-candy zindabad! :-D Meena Kumari and Shammi look so fabulous.

  2. Shammi Kapoor is absolutely brilliant in this film,as he plays a purely villainous character who has no compunctions. It is also refreshing to see Meena Kumari sans her "self-sacrificing" and "typical bharatiya nari" persona.

  3. Yes, he was. And it makes you realise how much more he was capable of than just singing lovely songs in the vales of Kashmir.

  4. I've seen this, though I've forgotten the ending, or rather the plot movements. I know who ends up with who, though :-)

    Of course I like Meena Kumari very much in every role. She did justice to all of them - in my eyes. Here too she was great, and absolutely charming. She looks wonderful with Shammi. And all those 'western' clothes :-D

    I was thoroughly amused by the matrimonial ad and the line of interviewee suitors. As you say they were all very restrained, especially Kishore Kumar who was the king of OTT with his bufoonery.

    Thanks Anu. Your review made me revisit the songs. They are quite lovely.

  5. Of course I like Meena Kumari very much in every role
    You and me, both, pacifist. :)

  6. We need more such screen daddies (uncles)!
    The film sounds really good! we need more such characters in Hindi films!

    "I wonder why she
    ended up with the ‘Tragedy Queen’ tag. Nargis, or even Nutan, fit that
    description so much better."

    It depends on which films did well at the box-offfice.
    Nargis is remembered for her Raj Kapoor films and Nutan for her frolicky Dev films. Naturally also for Sujata and Bandini, but she is not suffering all the time and in Seema she is suffering but she stands up for herself.
    So there goes the tag of the Tragedienne to Meena Kumari.
    Maybe you should start a "Save Meena Kumari from Tragedy Queen Tag" project on your blog

  7. But he could sell the latter talent better than the former

  8. Laughing at the new project you have found for me, Harvey. You are wicked! But yes, I think I will begin a 'Save Meena Kumari' project; I'm sure pacifist will help me.

  9. Yes, Harvey, you are right once again. But it still is a shame. :)

  10. And I'll join you in this Anu.
    I read somewhere that it was the great success of Baiju Bawra which earned her this title.
    Later on when she matured her roles were downright serious (means sad).

    The most unfair thing about all this is that even when she cries at someones death (for instance her father's) she's called weepy.

    Almost every heroine cries a couple of times in every film especially in the second half where she's more often than not having a misunderstanding or a huge obstacle in the way re: the hero.

    I also don't understand this intolerance towards 'tears/sadness'. :-/

    **Getting down from the soap box - with a determined look**

  11. The most unfair thing about all this is that even when she cries at
    someones death (for instance her father's) she's called weepy.

    I think the issue here is that once they gave her the tag, every time her eyes filled with tears, they took notice of the fact. I personally think that Nargis for instance, acted in more weepy, martyred films than Meena ever did. And that Nutan did far more regressive roles in the latter half of her career than Meena. But once the label is stuck on you, you are finished! :(

    We definitely do need to start a 'Clear Meena Kumari's name' andolan!

  12. I did not know about this one, sounds interesting what with Meena Kumari not in her usual tragedy queen role, and Shammi Kapoor as the villain. The story sort of fits in even today that is in 2013. I found some parts of it on You Tube, let me see whether I can find the time to catch it.

  13. Ah, that is what pacifist and I were groaning about - Meena Kumari did not usually have tragedy queen roles. Not any more than most of her contemporaries anyway. It's a shame that that tag shadows her immense range. Yes, do watch this one as well - it's a good film.


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