Shakuntala Devi movie review: Vidya Balan looks the part in a problematic but significant bio

Shakuntala Devi's writers seem conflicted in their approach to a woman who was not made for domesticity and awkward about homosexuality.

Anna MM Vetticad August 02, 2020 15:15:15 IST

2.5/5

Shakuntala Devi is perhaps the most famous Indian about whom most Indians know so little. I remember her well from my childhood, but only as a near-fixture in classified ads in the papers and because Dad said the sassy-looking woman in the picture was known as a "human computer".

Since watching writer-director Anu Menon's eponymous film on the late mathematical genius, I have pored over the Internet and  discovered considerable material on her,  ironically far more from abroad than her home country, India.

Shakuntala Devi the film, however, relies on detailed conversations Menon and her co-writer Nayanika Mahtani had with the subject's daughter. As with most Hindi films drawn from real life these days, the opening disclaimer states that it is "inspired by true events but does not claim to be a documentary/biography on any character depicted", with later text on screen adding that it is "based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter, Anupama Banerji".

This may be where the problem lies. Because Banerji and her mother, by the film's own admission, did not get along, and though the narrative portrays them repairing that troubled relationship at some point, it comes across as an interpretation of Shakuntala Devi's journey by someone who did not fully understand her and is loathe to admit that the bitterness and confusion still last.

The result is a biography that, while intriguing and amusing in its opening half, skims over the mind of a complex but clearly great lady. Vidya Balan looks the part of Shakuntala Devi, but Menon (who earlier made London, Paris, New York and Waiting) and Mahtani come off as observers who never manage to enter her head.

Shakuntala Devi the film transports us to 1930s Bangalore where the 5-year-old, unschooled Shakuntala's ability to casually calculate complicated mathematical problems draws the attention of her father. Soon she is on tour, 'performing' these calculations for audiences, at first in India and later across the world.

Shakuntala Devi movie review Vidya Balan looks the part in a problematic but significant bio

Vidya Balan in a still from Shakuntala Devi

So far so good. Her brilliance, her nonchalance about her brilliance, the manner in which she wowed crowds including academics and her sense of humour are entertaining. Her resentment towards a father she considered exploitative and a mother who never questioned him is believable. Even her equation with the man who becomes her husband (Jisshu Sengupta) has a natural progression at first. When their ties are strained, the film does not judge him — it allows the anger to come entirely from her — and the proceedings flow in a convincing fashion.

It is when Shakuntala Devi becomes about the daughter rather than the protagonist herself that it flounders. First, because it then shifts too far away from Shakuntala. Second, because it is unwilling to acknowledge that what it is showing on screen is a selfish careerist with a sense of entitlement over her child — an unromanticised version of the mother extracting "doodh ka karz" from her son in 1970s Bollywood films although, unlike in those films, this mother is not placed on a pedestal.

The writers of Shakuntala Devi 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 maths and motherhood.

Was the real Shakuntala Devi a jerk as a Mom? Maybe she was, maybe she was not. The problem is the film itself is in two minds and is weighed down by what is perhaps its own subconscious conservatism. There is nothing non-feminist about depicting a flawed woman as a flawed woman, but it is certainly worth noting that in a country where the achievements of women are rarely chronicled, this one defines the late Guinness-record-holding, world-renowned mathematical phenomenon largely by her motherhood.

This innate traditionalism leads to the superficial treatment of the protagonist in the second half and, in the first half, of her relationship and break-up with the man who trained her for the stage in her early days in Europe. It also possibly explains the film's strange approach to her stand on homosexuality.

Long before gay pride parades became the order of the day in India, Shakuntala Devi — a woman who was born in the 1920s and never went to school — authored a book titled The World of Homosexuals in which she argued for gay rights. According to media reports, her interest in the subject stemmed from her marriage to a man who turned out to be gay. Irrespective of what her motivations for writing it may have been, the very fact that she did back then and the arguments she made for equality, indicate that she was a special person. The film is not willing to grant her that. Instead what it gives us is a problematic passage that is awkward to the point of being bizarre and even offensive. I can't say more for fear of giving away spoilers, but let us just say this episode made me wonder about all the other 'facts' as presented by Shakuntala Devi's daughter to the writers and whether a reliance on multiple sources would not have been better.

Shakuntala Devi movie review Vidya Balan looks the part in a problematic but significant bio

Vidya Balan and Sanya Malhotra in a still from Shakuntala Devi

If Shakuntala Devi remains significant despite this, it is because it is so unusual for a Hindi film to question prevalent notions that all women are naturally inclined to subsume themselves in maternity.

Balan slips into Shakuntala Devi's skin best when she is sober and thoughtful. She also manages to look beautiful and remarkably like the person she is playing despite looking completely unlike her. Her portrayal of the character's OTT mannerisms and behaviour feels somewhat studied but she more than compensates for that in her ruminative moments.

The supporting cast is solid. Jisshu Sengupta as the husband — the character with whom the script has most empathy — is particularly effective with his unfailingly understated tone.

Shakuntala Devi's visuals are 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. (That farcical tone seems stretched elsewhere, when Shakuntala and her husband are trying to impress a couple of strangers with how "normal" they are.)

The film is intelligent in the way it fits Hindi into settings in Karnataka and abroad where Hindi would not have been the naturally spoken language. This is done without characters 'doing accents' in a caricaturish fashion (Balan does acquire an accent for her role, but it is smoothly done) and by slipping in an occasional line here and there in English, but mostly by asking for a suspension of disbelief.

What is especially remarkable is that scenes of mathematical problem-solving are handled so cleverly by Menon, that far from being off-putting for those who don't care for numbers, they end up being lots of fun.

Like the woman whose story it tells, Shakuntala Devi the film is complicated. That it has been made at all is important. That it is often amusing bodes well for an industry that still tends to hold the view that films revolving around women must perforce be weepies. That it is troubling despite its feminist goals is a matter of introspection for all of us.

Shakuntala Devi is streaming on Amazon Prime Video India.

Rating: **1/2

All images from YouTube.

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