Rukhmabai Raut, one of India's first female practising doctors, gets a big screen biopic

Female students occupy a considerable number of seats in medical colleges at the graduate level; this number thins at the post-graduate level, and decreases even further when one takes stock of how many of these women are practising doctors. The decision to give up a career, whether voluntary or involuntary, to take care of the household and children, has deprived India of a considerable part of the workforce in the healthcare industry, and continues to, even in the 21st century.

But many years ago, in Mumbai, one woman fought social norms and set a precedent for all the female doctors who would come after her. Dr Rakhmabai Raut (also spelt as Rukhmabai Raut), born in 1864 and educated at a medical college in the UK, was one of India's first female practising doctors who worked till the age of 90, a fact that remains largely unheard of even today. Bringing this story to life are director Ananth Mahadevan and actress Tannishtha Chatterjee in Dr Rakhmabai, a film shot in Marathi, English, Hindi and Gujarati, which will soon have a wide release in the country.

 Rukhmabai Raut, one of Indias first female practising doctors, gets a big screen biopic

Ananth narrates the story of how he happened to come across Dr Rakhmabai's story when he was reading a book on her by Mohini Varde, her grand-niece who resides in Mumbai. He realised that even doctors in the medical fraternity aren’t aware of her. "Everyone is under the impression that it is Anandibai who is India's first practising female doctor, but Anandibai unfortunately couldn't practice despite earning a degree, because she died of pneumonia. But Dr Rakhmabai goes beyond being India’s first female practising doctor; she for me is India’s prime social rebel," Ananth asserts.

Dr Rakhmabai was challenging gender norms in more than one way. During her time, girls were being denied the right to education and were being married off much before puberty. They were subjected to sexual abuse, because their husbands thought they could have sex with them however young the wives may be. Ananth says that the credit for Rakhmabai's progressive upbringing must be given to her step-father, Sakharam Arjun, who did not force her to stay at her husband's house, whom she was married off to at a young age.

Her wanted to ensure that her husband was educated enough, had a house of his own, apart from making sure that Rakhmabai fulfills her ambitions to study medicine. He taught her at home initially, because there did not exist any schools for girls, and medical colleges were not open to ladies. Her parents encouraged her to procure a medical degree from England at a time when even English women were not encouraged to earn degrees. "She brought this issue up in front of the Prince. She said that in spite of Queen Victoria ruling our country, is it not ironic that a lady is not purview to a lady’s problems in India?" he narrates.

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Dr Rakhmabai was also one of the first few women in India to file a divorce case. She did not want to live with her husband as she had been married off to him without her choice being considered in the matter, and this brought her into the limelight. The court proceedings were covered by newspapers as far as London and America. "She was an enigma, a very larger-than-life personality, during a time that did not allow her to be that," Ananth opines. Tannishtha Chatterjee says that Rakhmabai's divorce case was one of the two that was responsible for the amendment of the age of consent law.

"One of the challenges was what to keep and what not to," explains Ananth, adding that Rakhmabai's life was quite the odyssey. He says that this film was the toughest to make in terms of the close attention that had to be paid to production design. The film was shot in Mumbai and the UK, and it was necessary to wipe out all evidence of present times at the post-production stage. "The good fortune was that she lived in South Bombay where a lot of the heritage structures still exist. It involved a lot of computer graphics because the cables, wires, traffic signals had to be removed, to clean up today’s Mumbai and make it yesterday's. In the UK, I shot at Leeds and York because it was too familiar to modern day, and we also found a replica of the ship in which she sailed to England," he says.

Another challenge was researching about and procuring the rudimentary stethoscopes and medical instruments that were used then. The film's team also found the right costumes and graded the film in technicolour, so that each fabric could be identifiable and distinct. Ananth asserts that he didn’t want it to be just another biopic; he wanted the film to have gravitas.

Tannishtha Chatterjee's struggles mainly involved learning Marathi and playing the character at several stages of her life. For this, it was imperative to gain an understanding of the time period, the culture, and the life of the character, as well as take into consideration the status of women in Maharashtrian society in that era. "I was born into an upper middle class family, so my struggles are at a different level. To understand emotionally what the experience would have been, I had to use my imagination, research about her life, meet family members, and read the biography by Mohini Varde," Tannishtha explains.

Tannishtha points out that Rakhmabai's decision to return to India was brave. "She had the opportunity to stay and work in England, she could have married an Englishman, she could have had a comfortable life, but she decided to come back to India instead. She realised that the country needed her, but she never considered her work as being a sacrifice. Women did not have healthcare; there were no Indian women doctors, so they didn’t go to hospitals, because they did not want a man to touch them. The families also did not want this," she explains.

People in India branded her a witch, because she defied her marriage and she lived alone. "When Rakhmabai came back, she found herself ostracised in Bombay, because the Tilak brigade and others stoned her on the road and said that she was not worthy of staying here or capable of curing people," says Ananth.  In this sense, Tannishtha says, Rakhmabai is a contrast to those women who don’t get out of abusive domestic situations out of fear. In fact, she lived alone right until her death at the age of 91.

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Apart from having to fight these prejudices regarding her marital status and educational qualifications, Dr Rakhmabai also had to convince Indians about the need for medicine. Ananth explains that when Rakhmabai started a hospital in Surat, nobody turned up, because the prevalent attitude towards hospitals was that they were a place where people go to die. He says that she actually had to perform a delivery on a goat to tell everyone that deliveries are safe. "She kept her conviction alive against a society which did not believe in medicine, which was gender-biased, and which was too superstitious," he explains.

Over the years, Rakhmabai developed an extreme, radical stance on marriage and virtually a phobia for men. She swore off men when her mother asked her to get married again; she just didn’t like the experience with the first husband and his family, and she preferred to stay dedicated towards her mission. So much so, that the male and female hospital staff, including doctors, were not allowed to mingle in her hospital. There’s a scene where she tells her mother that men have no place in her life.

Ananth says that his film is relevant today, because despite the passing of several years, the same problems that plagued Dr Rakhmabai's society seem to plague ours. "Malala is still standing in the UN and saying that she got shot because she wanted to be educated," he laments. He wishes that the film awakens the audience to the issue of gender discrimination, because while material progress is taking place in the country, he says we need to grow up as human beings and change our outlook.

Tannishtha hopes that the film is able to make people question the other ways in which the patriarchy manifests itself as hurdles in women's lives. "A lot of women are educated with the purpose of marrying an educated man. There is no space for a demanding career, so the story is relevant in terms of the attitude towards women's employment," she says.

Tannishtha says that Dr Rakhmabai was a true feminist who was ahead of her time. Women today are standing on the shoulders of a giant like her, she adds, saying, "It is because of the battles she fought, the work she did that we can talk about the next step. Women in those times were far more courageous than us; we have it easy," she says.

Updated Date: Feb 12, 2019 20:59:23 IST