Addison — For Sunday night’s closing film at the 2017 DFW South Asian Film Festival, we met with Tannishtha Chatterjee, who has the title role in the biopic Doctor Rakhmabai, about India’s pioneering first female doctor. Fans of the current Oscar-nominated hit Lion might recognize her as the woman who takes in the young Saroo for a while until he realizes her evil intentions and flees.
TheaterJones: You play Dr. Rakhmabai , a very famous person in Indian history. How much did you know about her before you did this?
Tannishtha Chatterjee: Very little actually. Because outside the region she belongs to, which is Maharashtra, where Mumbai is, no one really knows about her. So very little, but I got to know a lot more while I was doing the film. And now Google Arts & Culture has done a profile on her, as one of those unsung heroes of yesteryear. And since I played her, they thought it would be interesting for me to present it.
So yeah, a very inspiring story of the first practicing lady doctor in India. Her life is not only about medical practice, but everything that she did, because she was a child bride. At the age of 11 she got married, then at the age of 19 she fought a court case and defied her marriage, and there was no divorce in those days. She went against customs, society, law, everything, and said, “At 11, I did not understand what marriage meant, but at 19 I know, and I do not want to live with a man I did not choose to marry.”
She went to England in 1891 to study medicine. And when she came back, there was a lot of backlash against her, because society at that time thought she was a fallen woman—she’s left her husband and gone away. And a woman doctor, really? No one had ever seen an Indian woman being a doctor, so people were scared to go to her. It was unfathomable, unthinkable. She had to convince people to listen to her and come to her, because what was happening in India at that time was that women were scared to come to male doctors, who would touch them where they didn’t want, and there were no female doctors, so they never got any treatment. So it was all that, that she was fighting against, and she lived to 91. Until 90, she went to the hospital every day to work.
She did most of those things under the years of British rule, and she lived to see the independence of India.
Yes, she died in 1955, and independence came in 1947.
And what she did in her lawsuit led to Britain passing age of consent laws for the whole British Empire.
The Consent Act, absolutely. That was a huge and significant contribution that she had, because of her court case, and another case of a very young girl being involved in marital rape. Those two cases led to the Age of Consent Act.
It must have been a thrill to play her then.
It was really fascinating and I devoted a lot of time to it. I read the biography by her great-grandniece (Dr. Mohini Varde), she’s still alive. I spent a lot of time with her and visited her house in Mumbai and did the research. From the letters that she wrote to a friend of hers in England, I tried to understand many things about her. She was very lonely toward the end of her life. For me, it was an inspiring journey to just play her, really understand this woman. In those days, Indians were like really, really patriotic, they wanted to do something for their country, which was selfless. She could have had a very nice life in England when she came to study there, and she was offered that as well. She refused and said, “I have to go back to my country, because that’s where people need me, and women need me.” She was one of those pioneering feminists who really lived a very strong and independent life.
It must have also been fun just to be in a historical epic, like those Merchant-Ivory or David Lean films we love, with the great costumes.
Yes, it was fantastic, and also because it told about such an inspiring character. You know, that’s a good thing about being an actor, you get to live all these lives, you become a part of that story.
What else would you like to tell people about seeing the film?
I think it’s a very universal story, of triumph and inspiration and all those things. It’s not culture bound, though it’s a period piece. I connected to it not only as a woman, but just as a human story of struggle, triumph and inspiration. So I think it’s the universality of the story that will connect with people, and I would love for everyone to come and watch the film.