The much-hyped biopic of “human-computer” Shakuntala Devi becomes a typical Indian melodrama and falls short of being a fitting tribute to the legendary mathematician.

Indian cinema has seen biopics of all hues. From gangsters to scientists and politicians and even pornstars, extraordinary lives have always fascinated filmmakers in India — like elsewhere. The lives of genius mathematicians are no exception to the rule. For one, the life of renowned Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan has found many takers in the country and abroad. The Tamil film Ramanujan (2014) and Hollywood film The Man Who Knew Infinity (2014) are recent examples. Vidya Balan’s Shakuntala Devi, based on the life of the mathematical genius and directed by Anu Menon, is the latest addition to this pack. 

From Kahani to Bobby Jasoos to Tumhari Sulu to Begum Jaan, Balan is known for picking movies that feature stories of extraordinary women. In this film too, she sticks to the rule and plays a woman who shot to fame for her impressive and impeccable ability to solve complex mathematical problems in a jiffy.

The movie, which premiered on Amazon Prime on July 31, starts with the humble beginnings of Shakuntala Devi who hails from Bengaluru (then Bangalore) and moves on to show how she gains global acclaim for her mesmerising math skills. Devi’s ‘mathematics shows’ where she solves complex maths problems on-demand becomes a hit. Evidently, the director has let Balan run on full steam and she performs and performs. She is charming and flamboyant. Menon has used Balan wisely, but there are shortcomings in her character formation. 

The movie is divided into different phases, offering a panoramic view of Shakuntala Devi’s career graph. Menon’s research is quite impressive. The move is well detailed. Devi’s disturbed childhood and her relationship with her mother who she believes is a conformist who never mustered the guts to speak against the father’s ways and means, are all shown in a nuanced and appealing way. 

The film features many scenes showcasing Devi’s expertise in solving mathematical problems and evolves fast enough to show Devi’s complex bonding with her own daughter, Anupama Banerji. The depiction of Devi’s love for her daughter is a tad confusing, though, considering that this relationship plays a pivotal role in the way the movie progresses and ends. 

The movie is surely an inspiring treat for the young generation thanks to punch-lines — “A girl who follows her heart.. and laughs with abandon, what could be scarier to men?” — and the beautiful portrayal of human relations and how patriarchy functions in Indian society and beyond, and how a woman develops a unique kinship with maths — “My English may not be correct, but my Mathematics won’t go wrong”.     

Family drama

Shakuntala Devi was a feminist. She was vocal about women’s rights. She also wanted to be a mother, a strong one, unlike her mother who she felt was spineless. Devi wasn’t ready to sit at home and do household chores after marriage because mathematics was her passion. Her husband Paritosh Banerji (Jisshu Sengupta) didn’t object but chose to stay in Calcutta (Kolkata). Devi travelled to London and continued visiting other countries in pursuit of becoming a successful woman. 

The film then probes the turns Devi’s life takes later, dissecting her fame, the jerky relationship with her husband and daughter (Devi wanted to have her daughter by her side always). The daughter, Anupama (Sanya Malhotra), wasn’t impressed with her mother’s ways and she hated mathematics. Devi also disapproved of her daughter’s relationship with Ajay (Amit Sadh) whom Anupama married later. Devi’s relationship with the daughter takes a bad turn and gets into a legal wrangle. Malhotra as the disturbed daughter is decent. 

Devi didn’t even have proper schooling. Still, she made it big in maths and excelled as a writer and mentor and was way ahead of her times in thinking and action. In 1977, she wrote a book — ‘The World of Homosexuals’ — which gets a mention in the movie. In real life, Devi’s husband Paritosh was gay, a fact which led her to write the book on homosexuals and throw light on their unexplored life.

But despite Devi’s multifaceted personality, the movie has turned out to be a normal family drama papered with mathematical formulas. The writers of the movie — Menon, Nayanika Mahtani and Ishita Moitra — were only interested in the turbulent relation between the mother and the daughter. The cinematography by Keiko Nakahara adds a rich and ravishing feel to the movie while the songs by Karan Kulkarni are just okay.

––Arjun Ramachandran, film critic and blogger 

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