I heard about Anandi Gopal when the discussion of a possible outbreak of war between India and Pakistan was raging; right after an attack on the Indian border at Pulwama in February 2019. However, as I walked home from the theatre that evening after watching a movie, my thoughts drifted far away from the suspense of war and strife that had, till then, enveloped my mind like everybody else’s.
Plenty of information is already available on Dr Anandibai Gopalrao Joshi, India’s first female doctor who travelled to America to obtain her degree in medicine. She is further immortalised by a book (bearing the same name as the movie) written on her life by an S J Joshi. The filmmakers say that they have based the film on the story drawn from the letters exchanged between her and her husband while she was studying abroad, and not from the book, which is a fictionalised account of her life, thus, giving a better claim to authenticity to the film.
The movie shares all of this information about her life that we already know of, tracing her story from the time she got married to Gopalrao Joshi, who was more than 15 years senior to her. So, what is it in the film that one should watch it, you may ask.
I recommend the film not for the information that one may obtain about an important chapter in women’s history, but for the portrayal of the couple and their extraordinary journey that wrote this chapter. Yes, the film is about their personal journey together! It does not seek to intrigue you with dramatised versions of history. Unnecessary anecdotes to make the story interesting or historical figures popping in without relevance to the main plot are also absent.
The story flows from one scene to the other like a long fabric — carefully woven together, gently taking you back into the time when Anandibai lived, studied, struggled and died for a cause that could not have been completed in her lifetime.
Let us start with the portrayal of Gopalrao Joshi in the film. It is a known fact from the book Anandi Gopal that Gopalrao Joshi was an eccentric, domineering man with an iron will to teach his wife. The movie portrays him with the same shade but also, somehow humanises his eccentricities and gives a deeper insight into his personality (Here, I wish I had read the book to make a better comparison).
His treatment towards Anandibai when she was unable to comply with his demands of studying as hard as he wished was excessive, even brutal. And yet, the belief he had in her worthiness or rather in the worthiness of knowledge that could liberate a woman also cannot be missed in his bantering.
I am not defending him, and he does not represent any ideal in the list of reformers. He was not the visionary that Mahatma Phule and Justice Ranade were when they taught their wives. He never had a definite plan about how Anandibai should use her education. And yet, his determination to challenge the repressive societal norms and his unwavering commitment to his wife’s education did place him in a different league from others in his community, actively sought to oppose the efforts of the reformers.
He was an unstable, bitter man, an imperfect husband, imperfect teacher; and yet, he did open the gates of learning for his wife and led her to the unthinkable. I would like to believe that he himself evolved as a better man and a better husband with Anandibai’s growth, at least as shown to us in the film.
One scene that stands out in the film is Gopalrao waving to Anandibai, shouting to her to write letters about her good health with a lump in the throat, as her boat sets in the sea to take her to the ship that will sail to America.
Because history is often written from the versions that emerge from male-dominated perspectives, Anandibai’s overarching achievement is always clouded by the fact that it is her husband who made it possible. The movie, however, makes it very clear that the wish to study medicine was solely and entirely Anandibai’s, a resolve that was shaped after the sudden demise of their first born and their inability to care for him.
In the scene, where they mourn for their dead child, she asks Gopalrao “How could you (as someone more knowledgeable than her) not realise that our child is dying?”. This was her first realisation, that her husband is not all-knowing and that she now needs to move beyond his tutelage to attain the knowledge that she lacks. Somehow, that levels their relationship. From then on, he ceases to be her teacher and becomes her ally.
Her resistance when Gopalrao drags her to the Church to convert her to Christianity in a desperate attempt to clear the obstacles between her travelling abroad for education epitomises this fact. She refuses to let go of her faith, and not because she was a fundamentalist for whom following different religions was abhorrent. It was her conviction that it will be hard work alone that will lead her to her destination, and not the conditions laid down by her ‘benevolent’ Christian benefactors.
Another point worth highlighting is the gradual change in the attitude of Gopalrao’s mother-in-law (from his first marriage), who comes to live with the couple after the death of her husband. Hostile, reluctant and non-accepting of the unconventional path Anandibai is treading in the beginning, she later gives away the jewels of her late daughter to fund Anandibai’s education abroad.
More often, such small things that break the mould are ignored in the light of huge revolutions. In one scene, when the mother-in-law is sweeping the porch littered with garbage by their neighbours in a bid to humiliate and discourage Anandibai from going to school, her saree slips away, displaying her shaved head — a cruel mark of widowhood in Maharashtra during the time. But she continues sweeping, literally and figuratively, unmindful of her social appearance, to clear the path for Anandibai’s education.
As the film moves ahead, it also features the ‘famous’ exchange of letters between Gopalrao and Anandibai — and we get a glimpse of the experience she had at the University. His objection to her saree padar slipping down from her shoulder in a carefree, happy moment captured in a photograph she shares with him is also mentioned, but the movie chooses not to dwell on it.
Instead, we learn about her distaste for boiled potatoes, the joy she experiences in making friends with people she had nothing in common with, except the desire to study medicine, her amazement after learning about smalls things of human anatomy, and the illness that took a toll on her body and mind.
“I am afraid that death will come if I close my eyes. I try to remain awake as much as it is possible for me, and see our dreams fulfilled with open eyes,” she wrote in one such letter to her husband.
In the end, we see her at her convocation ceremony where Gopalrao also manages to attend as a surprise to her (again, I am not sure if this happened, but I’m glad the film took the liberty to show it). When he takes her degree in his hand, he ecstatically proclaims to everyone listening to him, “She is the first.”
Yes, indeed, she is the first. She is the beginning of a journey of women’s liberation that knows no end.