Synopsis – The extraordinary story of Shakuntala Devi, the world-renowned mathematician who lived her life on her own terms. While the film pays tribute to her genius as a mathematician, it also humanizes her as a woman and mother, in trying to capture her indomitable spirit. Told through the lens of her relationship with her daughter Anu, the film highlights their very different struggles and aspirations.
My Take – When it comes to geniuses born in India, it is unfortunate that Shakuntala Devi, is not as popular in the current generation as the iconic women deserved to be. Known for her strong and vibrant personality, until her death in 2013, Shakuntala Devi remained one of the most influential writers and astrologers who openly supported LGBT rights back in 70s, and of course her tryst with mental mathematics that earner her the moniker of the Human Computer, and a place in 1982 edition of The Guinness Book of World Records.
Hence a feature film based on her life seemed like an intriguing idea especially given the fact that Vidya Balan, easily among the best working Indian actresses today, would be playing her was always going to be an added bonus. Directed by Anu Menon (London, Paris, New York), the biopic is based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter Anupama Banerji, is an entertainer at heart. Wrapped in the blanket of drama and overt feminism, the film is mostly intriguing and amusing as it skims over the mind of a complex but clearly great lady.
Unfortunately, where it lacks is the emotional appeal that we had seen in other well-crafted biopics and makers matters worse by resorting to clichéd drama in the second half.
Nevertheless, for its 127 minutes run time it remains an engaging watch and the credit for that goes to Vidya Balan and her confident, humorous and charming performance. Here, Balan works upon detailing and you can see her character’s changing mannerisms as Shakuntala Devi ages on screen. It is her precision that makes the obvious narrative appealing, and without her, the film would have become quite dull less than half way through.
The story follows Shakuntala Devi (Vidya Balan), whose life took an intriguing turn when she managed to impress her older neighbor by solving the cube root of a number, despite being just six years old. Belonging to a poor family with a sickly older child to care for, her father (Prakash Belawadi) sees this as an opportunity to bring some running income in the family, and begins to use his genius of a daughter to perform in various shows across the village.
While she resents her parents for using her talents, which have been developed without any formal training, a tragedy in her household fuels her ambition to leave them behind to become a successful woman on her own terms. Landing in London years later, with a fully developed dramatic persona, her magic with numbers find themselves getting a new upgrade when she meets Javier (Luca Calvani), a Spanish gentleman, who teaches her English, which in turn helps her conduct more shows, which sees her beat computers without any inconvenience and travel the world round the year.
But all of that changes when she meets businessman Paritosh Banerjee (Jisshu Sengupta) from Calcutta and eventually shifts her focus to making a family with him. But soon after their daughter, Anupama (Sanya Malhotra) is born, Shakuntala finds herself in mental dilemma forcing her to choose between her ambitions and motherhood, a conflict which later on begins to instill resentment inside Anupama towards her.
The back and forth screenplay explores various aspects of Shakuntala’s life as well in a fleeting manner. What is especially remarkable is that scenes of mathematical problem-solving are handled so cleverly by director Menon, that far from being off-putting for those who don’t care for numbers, they end up being lots of fun. Unlike most biopics, director Menon also chooses to narrate the story of the genius from the eyes of the person who was closest to her and had the most issues with her.
We all aim to not repeat our parents’ mistakes and this film tries to portray this across three generations. Shakuntala Devi vows to never be like her mother and always stands by it. Anupama, in turn, vows to never be like Shakuntala Devi and has a clear disdain for mathematics. It is through their interactions and journeys that we see the story play out. And given the optimistic zeal of the film, you’re never bored with the characters. It is indeed an enjoyable and happy film that you’ll want to watch with your family.
The film’s visuals are also determinedly bright and cheery despite its difficult subject. The director injects that same cheer into the narrative with an intentionally farcical, comical tone while showing the heroine in her uncharacteristic, house-bound avatar at one point, thus effectively underlining the ridiculousness of tying a person down to play roles they are not made for.
However, for a film that largely rides on Devi’s flippancy, there are also a few melodramatic mother-daughter sequences that somehow come across as force-fitted rather than take its natural course. Throughout the film, director Anu Menon has made sure that the audience never forgets that Shakuntala is a math genius. But she also keeps reminding us that she’s a vulnerable mother who wants to stay close to her daughter. However, in an attempt to strike a balance between the two, Shakuntala Devi’s reel journey appears quite regular.
Both, director Anu Menon and writer Nayanika Mahtani seem conflicted in their approach towards a woman who was not made for domesticity, and try as they might, they cannot balance their feminist aims with the information conveyed to them by a daughter who recalls her mother’s failure to balance math and motherhood. If only they would have concentrated more on the intriguing parts of Devi’s life like she contesting against deceased former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, being a case in point. Also what provoked her to take on Astrology as an alternate passion, considering how indefinite it is to the definite charm of the world of mathematics?
Thankfully, Vidya Balan keeps us thoroughly engaged. Here, Balan slips into this character with as much gusto as Shakuntala Devi had for mathematics. You can see her shine in every frame. Right from the younger days of the celebrated mathematician to the older ones when she becomes a grandmother, proving that biopics have little to with physical resemblance and more to do with turning into the person.
Sanya Malhotra also aces her role and deserves credit for her performance as Anupama Banerjee, who became her own person in her quest to become the opposite of her mother. In supporting roles, both Amit Sadh and Jisshu Sengupta are excellent, who despite brief roles, makes a large impact on the film. On the whole, ‘Shakuntala Devi’ is an adequately watchable biopic uplifted by Vidya Balan’s electrifying performance.
Directed – Anu Menon
Rated – NR
Run Time – 127 minutes