In a time where films like ‘Parched’ and ‘Angry Indian Goddesses’ try to bring out the struggles of Indian women, Ananth Narayan Mahadevan decided to go back in time and trace the footsteps of the first Indian practicing woman doctor, Rakhmabai Raut. His film, ‘Doctor Rakhmabai’, tells the story of young Rakhmabai who stood up to a conservative society between the 19th and 20th Century, by challenging the then existing child marriage laws. The film premiered at the 15th Pune International Film Festival (PIFF) and will have a wider release later this year. We speak to Mahadevan, who tells us more about what went into making the film.
Apart from Mohini Varde’s book on Dr Rakhmabai, what were your other sources of research for the film?
The entire film was designed as per Varde’s writing. From the stethoscopes and carts to the coats the doctors wore, we were very careful with the production design and costumes. Even the characters, including that of Edith Pechey, a doctor who comes from France to serve Indian women, was chosen carefully. We went through the original pictures of all the characters and casted the actors accordingly. Bikas Mishra, the screenplay writer, did other research on the internet and found a lot of international coverage on Dr Rakhmabai’s divorce case. We got the letters that she wrote to The Times of India under the pseudonym, ‘A Hindu Lady’.
You have earlier directed biopics like ‘Mee Sindhutai Sapkal’ and ‘Gour Hari Dastaan’. How much responsibility lies on the director while making a film that doesn’t involve fictional characters?
The responsibility is immense. You cannot be unfaithful to the subject. I am very sorry to say this but there are many people who are taking liberties in the name of biopics with characters that are either living or dead. I am very fortunate to have a producer like Dr Swapna Patker. We were not going to dumb the film down. Sindhutai Sapkal and Gour Hari Das are still alive! With Dr Rakhmabai, we had to be very careful with the medical and social facts otherwise anyone can turn around and say that it is not authentic.
What challenges did you face while shooting for the film?
It was very interesting because we had to explore the Bombay of those days. We shot at Khotachiwadi , heritage site, and we had to recreate that period. But what can we do about the electricity poles that have come up, the grills on the windows or the cars parked. In spite of all this, we shot there and we solved all the problems during the post-production. When Dr Rakhmabai goes to England, we had to show the place from her perspective. We fished out places and shot in Leeds and York. The ship on which she sails to get to England was something we got lucky with. We found a similar ship docked somewhere in a yard in London and we shot with it.
Do such films get their funding easily?
The film is funded by Dr Swapna Patker and when I spoke to her about making this film, she didn’t even blink an eye. I was very fortunate. The screenplay was ready and I was looking for a producer. She readily agreed because she identified so much with Dr Rakhmabai.
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