The Story of Anandi Gopal, Our First Woman Doctor, is the Story of Every Indian Woman

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The Story of Anandi Gopal, Our First Woman Doctor, is the Story of Every Indian Woman

Illustration: Robin Chakraborty

 

S

ameer Vidwans’ retelling of the story of Dr Anandi Joshi comes at an uncomfortable yet pertinent time.

Her name, leave alone her story, is not one either Maharashtrian millennials or their parents would be too familiar with. Anandi Joshi, along with Kadambini Ganguly was one of India’s first women doctors in the late 19th century, who travelled to the US, battling ill health, to get a degree in medicine. That itself would be compelling, but what sets apart this version is the presence of Anandi’s irreverent, iconoclast husband Gopal, who helps set her on the journey to education.

Gopal takes patriarchy by its horns and repeatedly declares that his soul rebels against the customs of the Brahmanical social structure and the suffocating shackles it imposes on women. Anandi emerges as a strong proto-feminist who battles social ostracism and makes a case for individual freedom of expression. Both take on social taboos, break convention, and follow their heart, even if it exhausts them physically and emotionally. Hundred and forty years on, their trials still strike a chord. The struggle for the right to dissent, for gender justice, and for liberation from the binds of a society ruled by caste strictures– it would appear Indian society has moved only marginally from where we were in the late 1800s.

Vidwans tells the story well. It begins with the marriage negotiations of the nine-year-old Anandi with a 25-year-old widower, who already has a reputation of being whimsical and irreverent. Anandi is grudgingly pushed into a household full of books where her short-tempered husband berates her for not learning her math tables, coaxes her out of her self-imposed taboos about menstruation, and walks down Alibaug roads holding her hand, taking on the stares of dumbstruck villagers. While it is Anandi who is the obvious heroine of the piece, Gopal’s story is equally compelling – a self-taught postal clerk in Thane, he devours books, befriends the local English parish priest, and is convinced that an English education is what will help Indians rise above their lot.   

The film has drawn heavily on letters, biographies, and period research to document the social boycott that follows.

Anandi comes into her own only after she loses her baby boy in infancy and realises the dearth of medical attention available to Indian women. Her determination to become a doctor and help her country women is matched by Gopal’s drive to help her achieve her goal — a correspondence with US missionaries, an unsuccessful attempt to convert to Christianity and a transfer to Calcutta where Anandi can study for her pre-med degree.

The film has drawn heavily on letters, biographies, and period research to document the social boycott that follows. When the panchayat derides Gopal for allowing his wife to study at a missionary school wearing “socks and shoes” and wonders if it would lead their daughters to clamour for similar education, Gopal retorts that he would happily source socks and shoes for all of them from Mumbai.

Given the direction of the winds blowing in the country today, Vidwans’ portrayal of Gopal as a feminist who bats for gender justice is an act of courage. Marathi cinema has been dabbling successfully in the historical biopic genre for a while now, but neither a Lokmanya based on Tilak’s life or a Harishchandrachi Factory, that traced Dadasaheb Phalke’s struggles to become one of India’s first filmmakers, went against the grain the way Anandi Gopal does.

Vidwans has mentioned in an interview that the biographical genre has flourished in the country because of the element of patriotism and what people have done for the country. Thackeray, the film on the Shiv Sena supremo, inflames Hindutva pride, and the upcoming biopics of Narendra Modi and Nitin Gadkari are expected to fuel hyper-nationalism. Anandi Gopal however turns the premise on its head – it portrays the fierce foresight and determination of a young couple that proves what they could achieve despite the country they live in. Anandi Gopal succeeds in reviving from the deep recesses of public consciousness, the couple’s struggle for self-assertion and identity, something ordinary Indian citizens struggle with even today.

Anandi, who died aged 23, did not live to fulfil her dream of practising as a doctor.

The only time we are privy to a bit of physical intimacy between the couple is when Gopal lovingly embraces his wife as she hands him her medical degree in a convocation hall in America – but only after he has stooped to touch her feet.

In a country that is still struggling to declare marital rape a crime, continues to dither over women’s entry into places of worship, it is worthwhile to remember that every once in a while, there has been a woman like Anandi who braved ridicule, ostracism and tuberculosis to get her medical degree at the age of 22. And that despite a vast majority of Indian men who continue to bask in the advantages of patriarchy, there have been men like Gopal who reduced their own names to a footnote to ensure their partner secured her place in history.

Anandi, who died aged 23, did not live to fulfil her dream of practising as a doctor. But as Gopal reminded her, she would leave a legacy of hope for thousands of women who would be inspired by her story. He was right.

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