Sameer Vidwans’s Anandi Gopal isn’t the cracking portrait of a proto-feminist that it needed to have been, but it is always absorbing. That’s hardly surprising, given the Marathi biopic’s subject: one of India’s earliest female doctors, and the first woman to earn a medical degree from the United States. Anandi Gopal Joshi’s story dates back to the mid-1800s and resonates all these years later, and the raw power of her experiences often rescues Vidwans’s movie from its earnestness.
Anandi Gopal is based on a layered screenplay by Karan Siddhant Sharma (in Hindi) with Marathi dialogue by Irawati Karnik, and is set within the framework of the inspirational biopic. There are eureka moments, milestones that are underscored by distracting background music, and dialogue that repeats what we have just seen. While the movie isn’t always smoothly narrated and suffers from melodramatic flourishes, it works best as an unconventional romance between a fanatical reformist and the woman he sought to mould in his own image.
The story begins, not insignificantly, in 1857. A child marriage is being plotted between a barely educated girl and a widower with a son. Anandi’s parents have been forewarned that postmaster Gopal Joshi (Lalit Prabhakar) is “eccentric”, but they are shocked when he insists that he will marry Anandi only on the condition that she will pursue her studies after the wedding.
Anandi’s impoverished parents give in, unwittingly contributing their mite to history. Gopal is very serious about his condition. His idea of pillow talk on the night when he is supposed to consummate his marriage is to ask Anandi (Bhaghasyree Milind) to recite her multiplication tables. Soon, Gopal wants Anandi to learn English, and he enrolls her in a missionary school as the only Indian student. A personal tragedy finally makes Anandi see the wisdom behind her husband’s obduracy, and at the exact mid-point of the 134-minute movie, she begins to come into her own.
Anandi’s feat is hardly easy. We see the virulent opposition to Gopal’s attempts to educate Anandi, the social ostracism, and the valiant efforts of Gopal’s mother-in-law from his previous marriage (Geetanjali Kulkarni) to contribute her bit to the rebellion. Far more compelling than the challenges faced by Anandi and Gopal is the peculiar bond between them. Gopal’s monomaniacal obsession with making an example out of Anandi is attributed to his hatred for Brahmin orthodoxy and superstition. Some of Gopal’s anger is directed at his wife. He resorts to threats and violence to get Anandi to study instead of keeping house. The movie, however, allows Anandi to escape with spiritual bruises, and leaves any actual physical abuse to the imagination.
The production design and costumes give a vivid sense of the distant past, and the performances by the leads are heartfelt. Lalit Prabhakhar deftly conveys Gopal’s unlikely heroism. Gopal’s tough-love approach is explained as a necessary reaction to the ossified social structures that prevented women from being educated or seeking employment. The brightest idea in the screenplay is that the times were terrible, which necessitated extreme measures.
As Anandi finally makes her way to America, she emerges in the film as a character within her own right, rather than an unwilling subject of a cruel experiment. Finally separated from her domineering husband, Anandi becomes the proto-feminist of history books. Bhagyashree Milind, who is best known for her work in the comedy Balak Palak (2013), gives a solid performance as the diminutive sari-clad young woman who is determined to beat the odds.
Anandi Joshi didn’t live long enough to see her achievement bear fruit. She died of tuberculosis after returning to India at the age of 22. Was it worth it? The closing credits are a roll call of women who have blazed trails throughout history, suggesting that Gopal was right all along.