“Ramanujan”… Maths factor

Posted on July 12, 2014


Spoilers ahead…

The first few scenes in Gnana Rajasekaran’s Ramanujan, which details the life of the mathematics genius, are all about the acknowledgement of the man’s genius. As a boy, he baffles his teacher with an astute argument about the value of zero. Thereon, he baffles college-goers, a ticket collector on a train, the headmaster of his school –the word “genius” is frequently bandied about. The wide-eyed headmaster exclaims, “Not a single mistake” when a look would have sufficed – this is not a film that’s shy about letting the dialogue do most of the heavy lifting. Later, men in influential positions recognize that this is someone special, and that he should not be saddled with lowly jobs. He should be left free to continue his research. (And he still gets his salary.) It looks like a dream life. And yet, the crux of the film is how underappreciated Ramanujan (Abhinay Vaddi) was in his own country.

Perhaps the point is that he wasn’t as appreciated as he was in Cambridge University, when Professor GH Hardy (Kevin McGowan) took “the Indian clerk” under his wing and showcased his work to the world – but we don’t see how Ramanujan could claim that he was unrecognized and that he was struggling for two square meals a day. (We hear it; we don’t see it.) Ramanujan is evidently a labour of love and even a necessary film – in an age where we don’t read as much as we watch movies, cinematic representations of important people and events are extremely valuable – but it doesn’t flesh out its central conceit, the contrast between the supposedly miserable life the mathematician led in India and the (relative) bliss he found abroad. All the while, it appears that Ramanujan was far better off than his fellow clerks, who still had to slave away at their desks, when he was given a private chamber in which to coddle his genius.

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How much of a life do we need to see to get a sense of the man? A biographer needn’t address this question – books are languorous affairs. But a filmmaker must pick and choose events and shape his material, especially when the material keeps us at an arm’s length. When we watch Amadeus, we are drawn into Mozart’s life because the music draws us in. In Gnana Rajasekaran’s own Bharathi, the rousing poetry drew us in. But mathematics isn’t something you can put up on screen. The director doesn’t go in for flashy filmmaking, the kind we saw in A Beautiful Mind, where the scene where the protagonist cracks a code is presented in way that makes us feel that he is in some kind of mystical communication with numbers. Here, we only see Ramanujan hunched over his papers, and that’s not enough. I don’t know what could have been done to draw us into Ramanujan’s beautiful mind, but by the end, we are left distant observers, not vicarious participants.

The film runs nearly three hours and it’s puzzling why it needed to. Did we really need two separate scenes where the professor played by Radha Ravi proclaims what a genius Ramanujan is? Did we really need two separate scenes where we’re shown that Ramanujan did not have paper to scribble his theorems on? Did we really need to be introduced to Hardy’s sister Gertrude? There appears to have been no effort to streamline the events of Ramanujan’s life. Instead of an organic narrative, we’re left with an information-dispensing device spitting out one plodding scene after another. This happened. Then that happened. Then this happened. And then that happened. The casting doesn’t help. Abhinay Vaddi was reportedly chosen because he resembles Ramanujan, but he is unable to put across a character we can root for or empathize with.

The writing, too, fails to make Ramanujan interesting, the way Mozart was in Amadeus, or Bharathiyar was in Bharathi. We get all the exterior details – the “eccentricities”; Ramanujan speaks to flowers the way Bharathiyar embraced a donkey – but the most interesting aspects of Ramanujan’s inner life remain undramatized. The key to man, it appears, is that he was a believer when most Western mathematicians were rationalists. (The Cambridge scenes, filled with bad actors dubbed into Tamil, are unintentionally funny.) This is what sets Ramanujan apart from other underappreciated geniuses like van Gogh and Kafka and Keats (who is the subject of a classroom lecture here; Ramanujan, unsurprisingly, is busy solving a maths problem). He says that he sees his family deity, Namagiri Thaayar, in his dreams, and he has the answers to his maths problems when he wakes up. (He’s literally doing sums in his sleep.) Why not take us into these dreams? And why not explain his timidity? As a boy, he faints while watching a play about the story of Prahlada, when Narasimha disembowels Hiranyakashipu. But this incident is a one-off, and without knowing more, all we’re left with is a rather weak and snivelly individual who gets tiresome after a point. Hardy, too, never coheres into a living-breathing character. It’s understandable that the much-debated gay angle of his relationship with Ramanujan is not explored, but even otherwise, barring one fascinating sliver of insight about his relationship with mirrors, he has all the weight and depth of a Disney-era fairy godmother. He’s just there to wave a white-man’s wand and fix Ramanujan’s problems.

There’s some good music by Ramesh Vinayagam. (Vinkadandha jothiyaai is particularly exquisite, and its placement in the narrative is perfect.) And there are good performances by Y Gee Mahendran (as Ramanujan’s colleague) and ‘Nizhalgal’ Ravi (as Ramanujan’s father). But if Ramanujan comes to life at all, it’s in the scenes with Suhasini, who plays Ramanujan’s mother. The character is the Tam-Brahm answer to the domineering dragon-mothers from the Tennessee Williams plays, and the only time I laughed is when she snubs her meek daughter-in-law Janaki (Bhama). I wished we were watching her story instead. She wants to control her son’s life, and she keeps scheming to keep him away from Janaki. All of this is garden-variety melodrama, right out of the Visu handbook, but there’s at least a vulgar, what-next curiosity in these portions, the satisfaction of seeing recognizable human beings instead of abstract theorists and dreamers. The great man deserved a better movie.


* the Indian clerk = see here
Amadeus = see here
Bharathi = see here
A Beautiful Mind = see here
* Namagiri Thaayar = see here
* Prahlada = see here
* much-debated gay angle = see here and here
* Ramesh Vinayagam = see here
Vinkadandha jothiyaai = see here
* Y Gee Mahendran = see here
* ‘Nizhalgal’ Ravi = see here
* dragon-mother = see here
* the Visu handbook = see here

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Posted in: Cinema: Tamil