Sandhya Gokhale in Portrait
"The exposure to the life struggles of people across the world inspires you to continue your fight against injustice and inequality."
Sandhya Gokhale, lawyer and advocate, Mumbai High Court, talks about her experience as a litigator in the US, life as a single mum in India and her time in the movie industry.
You were born and raised in India. As a girl child, did you have any socio-cultural compulsions? How was your childhood experience?
I was brought up by average middle class parents in the city of Pune, which has a rich intellectual and cultural tradition. My parents always encouraged my extra-curricular interest in sports, drama, music and literature besides my scholastic growth. They raised me and my elder brother equally. Though they were religious, I became an atheist as an adult. They allowed my independent thinking. Thus, my family background was different, though not privileged, than the then prevalent conservative value system. Despite my superlative academic achievements, my parents allowed me not to join the path of medical or engineering disciplines. I joined a degree course of arts so that I could be free to participate in many socially relevant activities.
During my childhood itself, I became aware of the contrasting circumstances such as discrimination against women, oppression of the deprived class and vices of the cast system, to name a few. At my own small level, I kept on raising my voice for and on behalf of others. For many years, I participated in a local literacy and public health movement. I also understood the power legal experts could have to bring about social change. After my first bachelor’s degree in political science & philosophy, I chose to pursue a legal education with a dream to empower women and the underprivileged.
With all this, as a woman, I was expected to handle domestic, household chores as well. I could not get away with the disciplined lifestyle. I did not have the freedom to disobey that. I never complained about it, as I realized its benefits. In later years, it helped me cope with the conflicting demands of personal and professional lives of a working woman. The developed liking for cooking worked as a catharsis.
What were your aspirations as a fresh law graduate? How did your career unfold further?
After my degree in law, at the age of 22, I left my hometown and started my apprenticeship with a very renowned lawyer in Mumbai. Leaving the comfortable zone of your parents’ abode was essential for getting exposed to the hardships of life. Actually, even during the eight years of my college education, I earned my own living either by working as a receptionist, a translator or conducting classes for Thai students. Most of the saved money was spent on music cassettes and books. Looking back, I feel very surprised as to how minimalist I was then.
Since I neither had any place to stay in Mumbai, nor the money to pay rent, I joined the ‘Master’s in Law’ at Mumbai University. With that I could stay in a students’ hostel. Soon I shifted to America to join my boyfriend, who was pursuing a PhD in Physics. I finished my post-graduate degree specializing in civil rights law. The exposure I got after I stepped in the United States was truly enriching. I grew in so many directions. My understanding of the complexities of being, international politics, power dynamics in human relationships and the fragmentation of life with fault lines of gender, poverty, race, class etc. matured exponentially. Considering my academic incline, I would have liked to join the doctorate program; but, I was attracted to litigation. That was the time when newer issues like race-gender-age-disability or HIV-related discrimination, homosexuals’ rights and sexual harassment at the workplace were coming to the surface. So many newer contours of law were being shaped and litigated. I felt compelled to handle those matters. In a way, I was a witness and also a participant of the changing parameters of the American social milieu.
Did you feel fulfilled about your professional life in America? Then why did you move back to India?
Yes, I did feel fulfilled in my professional life in New York. I felt I was at the right place at the right time. At the same time, I went through an ideological crisis in that I myself was cushioned in cozy affluence of the capitalist life that was quite contrary to my aspirations of contributing towards social transformation. I felt guilty of my self-absorbent lifestyle. Also, I lost connection with all my past necessities, such as Indian classical music, literature, etc. My choice to return to India was purely personal. Looking back, I feel satisfied that I had the courage to swim against the tide.
Was it very difficult to resume life in India after ten years?
It was very challenging. Firstly, I was a single mother; secondly I had no family support either to provide finances, clients/active legal practice or to look after my daughter. Of course I had sufficient savings which allowed me some breathing space till I started to earn my living through my practice. But I started to struggle on all fronts.
In India, issues like HIV-related discrimination, sexual harassment at the workplace and child abuse were starting to surface by 1997. We had no specific laws other than our criminal codes and the Constitution to file actions against such treatment. Due to my exposure to all these issues in the United States, I became very active.
The major dilemma then was to find time for my three-year-old daughter, Samiha, while accepting new professional challenges. I planned my days according to her school and other activities. I hired a driver to manage my movements between the court, my office, her school and playground and our home. I also had a full-time house-assistant who would fill in through my absences.
I never really endorsed a patriarchal glorification of motherhood, but honestly, my daughter and my love for her made it all a worth game.
You were the scriptwriter of ‘PAHELI’ (The Riddle) which was India’s official entry to the Academy Awards in 2006. How did you move to screenwriting and filmmaking?
I used to write occasionally all through since my college days – some critical pieces, some creative, some journalistic. But during my stay in the United States, I could not find any time for any such endeavors. I then met someone, who encouraged me to take up again all what I had almost forgotten by then. He not only brought a cool breeze to my life but also taught me to breathe deeply. Amol Palekar entered my horizon with no prior intimation at all. He is a very renowned actor and a director of international repute. Later, when I married him, I realized that I would not be able to pursue my career as a lawyer and a film-writer simultaneously. I chose to pause the courtroom life and entered the magical world of cinema.
Until Amol’s entry, I was an avid buff of the world cinema; with him, I actually participated in the film making in various capacities like writer, art director, costumes designer, producer and director. We made about eight feature films in about ten years. Ours was a super-speed fast track life involving travelling, shooting, attending post-production work and music sessions, meeting various people and promoting our films. Being a lawyer, I could handle the commercial side of the film business very easily.
My themes, ranging from homosexuality, Alzheimer’s illness, euthanasia, etc., were never introduced through films until then. My films created awareness, while unfolding their different layers before the audience. My female characters were strong, emancipated women who explored their sexuality, questioned patriarchal dominance and owed up to their choices. Such projection of women itself proved to be path breaking.
When working with your husband on movies, you spent 24/7 of your time together. How did you make sure to keep a personal life and to separate your work from your life as a family?
Keeping the balance is always a challenging task. Somehow, we managed it well, may be because our sensibilities, maturity level and aspirations were in synch. Amol loved Samiha so much that he would involve her in all our activities. Being together became our need and a choice, rather than a compulsion. We did not have many creative arguments. I did not have any ambition to be a filmmaker on my own. So, probably there was no clash at that level and hence, the sexual politics as working partners were minimal. Amol’s personality is very soothing too – his calm, quiet, and loving demeanor always fetches loads of brownie points.
After about 14 years in the movie industry, what are your perceptions as a fresh entrant of the legal field?
Even during my film making years, I kept in touch with everyday judgments and the changing laws. From 2014 on, there was a sea change in our political atmosphere with the saffronized zeal all around. Freedom of speech, inclusiveness and secularism was under attack. I have challenged many laws, such as the censorship of theater, films, etc.
You have worked and travelled abroad and have a daughter that has worked and studied in multiple countries. In your eyes, what makes these experiences from different parts of the world enriching?
The exposure to the life struggles of people across the world makes you optimistic; it inspires you to continue your fight against injustice and inequality.
What is the best advice you ever got that you would like to share with young lawyers?
Never misconstrue the facts in that facts should never be changed, though you may have a different interpretation of those facts. Following this, you will never compromise your integrity and honesty.
Which female legal professional would you nominate as a role model for breaking.through and for which reasons?
There are many women lawyers who fight in courts on a day-to-day basis; there are many who work at ground level so as to spread legal literacy; there are many in the field of academics who shape the future talent. How can I mention only one??
Thank you very much for this interview!
Pune, September 2021. Sandhya Gokhale answered the questions, which were prepared by Audrey Canova, in writing.
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