For someone who had such a celebrated, spot-lit public life, accompanied by an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records and dropped jaws in well-regarded mathematics circles around the world, there is astonishingly little known about the personal life of Shakuntala Devi, known as ‘the human computer’.
Anu Menon’s film on the life and times of Shakuntala Devi starts with this disclaimer: ‘this film is inspired by true events but does not claim to be a documentary/biography of any character depicted in the film’. Par for the course for biographical sketches in Bollywood, but ironic in a film whose story was detailed with the help of the maths genius’ real-life daughter, Anupama Banerji. So do we believe everything we see, or dismiss certain events as ‘creative liberty’?
It’s a point worth considering because Shakuntala Devi, as played by Vidya Balan with supreme confidence and conviction, turns out to be the kind of strong, independent woman that Bollywood usually keeps away from. As a little girl who could compute in a flash the cube root of a complicated number, and a maths prodigy who was deprived of a ‘normal’ childhood by a father who dragged her from one show to another, she was very clear that she would be a ‘bada aadmi, not a badi aurat’, not a desire commonly expressed by little girls in the 1930s.
That Shakuntala was never going to toe any line, or be any kind of ‘normal’ woman, is the line the movie takes, and does well by. Especially when we see her, as a young woman, creating a life of her own in England, where she fetches up not knowing anyone, speaking the language in a brown accent, wearing her colourful saris and pigtails proudly. She does come close to a man, but very soon we realise Shakuntala Devi doesn’t need male help to prop her up. She is happiest on her own, laying out her astonishing prowess with numbers, wowing awe-struck audiences around the world. Being her own person.
We see her conjuring up these complicated answers, with nearly too many digits to count, and we are as delighted as she is. Am I correct, asks Balan. Of course, she is. And we beam, as much as she does. And then she finds a partner (Sengupta), and becomes a mother, and the film tilts over into becoming a drama about a reluctant mother and an unhappy daughter (Malhotra). Shakuntala Devi the perfect number cruncher giving way to Shakuntala Devi the imperfect mother is the conflict the film chooses, and spends most time resolving. Could it be because numbers are frightening and alienating, and mum-and-daughters are comforting and relatable?
You wish that the film stayed with Shakuntala the maths genius a little more. It would have been nice to delve into the process with which Shakuntala did what she did, even though she had no clue: numbers just spoke to her. The fact that she had political ambitions (she stood for elections, and fought Indira Gandhi in Medak for a Lok Sabha seat) is papered over briefly; a little more focus on her now-affectionate-now-thorny relationship with the father of her daughter would have shed light on why she wrote a book on homosexuality, the first of its kind in India. What made her veer towards astrology? More light on these intriguing aspects would have given us a more rounded Shakuntala.
Balan owns the material that she is given, course-correcting every time she tends to slip into being mannered. The supporting cast is fine. Sengupta works well with Balan, and Malhotra and Sadh, as the modern couple, feel right. The film, which stays determinedly cheerful even in the grey hues of London, slides into flatness here and there. The lines are perky but sometimes startlingly contemporary (did anyone say, for example, ‘let’s take this to the next level’, back in the 50s?). But then we slide right back: this is truly a Vidya Balan show, and she carries it off, with a glint in the eye, and a lilt in the step.
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