Who was Anandi Gopal Joshi? Many know her as the first Indian woman to have studied medicine in the United States, graduating from the Woman’s Medical College of Pennsylvania in 1886. Little, however, is known about her beyond these few lines.

A new film hopes to fill the gaps about Joshi’s singular and historic journey. Anandi Gopal, directed by Sameer Vidwans, will be released by Zee Studios on February 15. The Marathi-language biopic stars Bhagyashree Milind as Anandi Gopal and Lalit Prabhakar as her husband, Gopalrao Joshi.

Anandi Gopal’s path was in part charted by Gopalrao, to whom she was married at the age of nine. He was 20 years older than her and a fervent proponent of women’s education, and it was his condition that Anandi continue her schooling and learn English. To make sure she studied, Gopalrao would routinely reprimand and beat her, “flinging chairs and books” at her, according to the letters she wrote to him from the US.

However, the decision to become a doctor was hers. The interest was sparked when she lost her baby boy shortly after he was born. Her driving force was the desire to address the dearth of female doctors in the country, having learnt during her own pregnancy how difficult it could be for women to allow male physicians to examine them. However, she died before she could set up her practice. Tuberculosis claimed Anandi’s life shortly after her return to India in 1887. She was 21.

“However, her ambition and short-lived success would help blaze a new trail for future generations of Indian lady doctors,” the Smithsonian website noted. Following her achievement, “many medically-minded Indian women would follow in her footsteps”.

(L-R) Anandi Joshi, Kei Okami from Japan and Tabat M Islambooly from Ottoman Syria at the Woman's Medical College of Pennsylvania. All three were the first women from their respective countries to obtain a degree in Western medicine. Courtesy Public domain/via Wikimedia Commons.

Vidwans’s ambition was to bring out the difficulties faced by Anandi in reaching her goal – on the one hand was condemnation from her Hindu neighbours for her aspirations and on the other, demands to convert from the Christian missionaries whom the couple approached to facilitate her passage abroad.

Finally, Theodicia Carpenter from New Jersey, who read about the couple’s attempts to come to the US in the local Princeton Missionary Review publication, offered support. In this film, I have tried to bring out what was happening around them [the couple] in that era,” Vidwans told Scroll.in. “People know their external struggles, but not their internal ones. It’s a story people should know about, not just in Maharashtra but the whole country.”

Vidwans’s filmmaking credits include the romances Double Seat (2015) and Time Please (2013) and the family drama Mala Kahich Problem Nahi (2017). The subject of Anandi’s life especially resonated with him because of the challenges that women continue to face in getting an equal claim to public and private spaces.

“I asked myself this question too – why should I see this story today?” Vidwans said. “There were two or three things that jumped out. For one, even today, whether Sabarimala or Shani Shingapur [both temples were only recently opened to female devotees, but women still face difficulties entering], women are still being discriminated against. But 140 years ago, one couple, at a time when women were not even allowed to be educated, decided that this woman should study. So I felt that this story must be told.”

Anandi Gopal (2019).

The screenplay was written in Hindi by Karan Siddhant Sharma and was adapted into Marathi. Vidwans roped in Irawati Karnik, the noted Marathi, Hindi and English playwright and recipient of the Sahitya Akademi Yuva Puraskar. Vidwans had known Karnik from his theatre days. “Not much is known about Anandi’s internal world, so to create that, I wanted a woman involved in the project,” he said. “I thought of Ira then, whose work I had seen and who also has a very good sense of dialogue and is very perceptive. So the three of us together worked on the Marathi adaptation and she wrote the dialogue.”

For Karnik, who has also written dialogue for the Marathi films Ekulti Ek (2013) and Man Pakharu Pakharu (2008) and was credited with original story for Pari Hoon Main (2018), the challenge was tackling Anandi’s relationship with her husband. He was an important but equally tumultuous influence, often using brute force to get her to study. “What is interesting about this story is that even though it was she who studied and became the doctor and put in the hard work, the driving force behind most of it is Gopal,” Karnik said. “He was the one who was making conscious decisions. He had opinions on why women should be educated, on why the Brahminical system was problematic or how religion was overpowering rationality.”

Lalit Prabhakar in Anandi Gopal. Courtesy Zee Studios, Fresh Lime Films and Namah Pictures.

Irawati Karnik had to find a way to stay true to the facts and yet bring out Anandi’s individuality. “What I had to work on was trying to figure out what her journey was – the choices she herself made, to identify moments when she took a chance, disagreed with him or made things go a certain way,” she said. “We realised was that while Gopal was headstrong from the word go, she was someone who emerged, who moved from her personal troubles to thinking for society, for women in general and to larger ideas.”

To get into Anandi’s inner world, Karnik referred to works such as Anjali Kirtane’s Dr Anandibai Joshi Kal Ani Kartrutva, Kashibai Kanitkar’s biography and SJ Joshi’s fictionalised account, Anandi Gopal. “We find that she is deeply observant,” Karnik said. “She asks questions. She does not hesitate to express herself. And at the same time, she doesn’t say everything that she thinks. She only says what really matters. Gopal, in comparison, is a very aggressive, outspoken person. He decides that it is his mission to provoke people, disturb people, challenge the status quo.”

Waata Waata Waata Ga, Anandi Gopal

A great deal of effort also went into recreating the 1800s. Since Vidwans wanted to use real locations as far as possible, the crew had to hunt for old houses and heritage areas to shoot in. Most of the filming took place in Maharashtra, with Georgia representing Pennsylvania in the latter part of Anandi’s life. “We looked for houses that were at least a hundred years old,” Vidwans said. “The texture of such houses cannot be recreated on set, and Marathi films don’t usually have the kind of budget to make a set of that level. If there were any modern fixtures in the house, we tried to hide them while, or then clean them up in the visual effects.”

The art and costume departments also had to piece together other details of that era – the kind of furniture, lighting devices, paintings, clothes and colour palettes that were commonly used at the time. The process took about a year and a half, Vidwans said.

Anandi Gopal. Courtesy Zee Studios, Fresh Lime Films and Namah Pictures.

Choosing the right actor to play Anandi’s role was another challenge: it needed to be someone who was very young and yet able to express complex emotions. While Vidwans had Lalit Prabhakar in mind for Gopalrao’s role right from the start, it took much longer to finalise the female lead. “For Anandi’s role, we looked a lot, for six to seven months,” he said. “Then I remembered Bhagyashree, whom I had seen in Balak Palak. We called her, did auditions and screen tests and then worked with her for four months before finalising her”.

Anandi Gopal joins a long list of biographical films in Indian cinema in recent years. What explains the popularity of this genre? “In my perspective, it’s because the Indian audience are a slightly nostalgic audience,” Vidwans said. “And second, there’s a slightly political reason. In the last few years, patriotism has been a strain in society. So people want to see on the big screen people who have done something for the country. The third and most important is because people have proven themselves as having done something inspirational, the audience know they will take something positive away from the film.”