Shakuntala Devi on Amazon Prime Video, with Vidya Balan and Sanya Malhotra: A biopic whose conceits sound better on paper than they play out on screen

Posted on August 7, 2020

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But inside these feminist milestones, what was this female really like? The characters cry out for flesh and blood, dimension and depth.

Spoilers ahead…

Shakuntala Devi was a Maths whiz who beat the world’s fastest computer. This is a fact most people know, but her personal life is a bit of a mystery. I don’t mean this in a conspiratorial way – it’s just that we don’t know as much about her as we do about some other famous figures. The biggest takeaway from Anu Menon’s biopic (Nayanika Mahtani and Ishita Moitra are the co-writers) is that she was Quite. A. Woman. And she was everything a woman of those times wasn’t “supposed” to be. Right from the age of five, she was… a “man”. She was the family’s breadwinner. She spoke loudly. She laughed loudly. She questioned why women had to step back from their career after marriage, after motherhood. (Remember, this was at a time when most Indian women didn’t even have a career.)

She was a hippie before hippies were invented. She didn’t care for a “home life”, or “stability”. She didn’t exactly crave male companionship. (Jisshu Sengupta plays the husband.) She travelled the world and she loved it. She says people aren’t like trees; they have feet so they can travel and not be rooted to a spot. Best of all, she knew she was a genius and she was fabulously immodest about it. (Humility is seriously overrated, IMO.) She throws a sulking tantrum after she’s told, on a television show, that she’s wrong in a calculation — she knows the computer has made a mistake. She hates that people are laughing at her, at her, Her Royal Shakuntala Devi-ness. And her face lights up like the sun when she’s vindicated. At this moment, she’s the John McEnroe of numbers. (Shakuntala Devi: 1. Computer: 0.)

But inside these feminist milestones, what was this female really like? “I don’t need a man” is a declaration. It’s action. What’s the psychology behind it? That’s when we get to know the person — and in Shakuntala Devi, we never really get to know Shakuntala Devi. Is “I don’t need a man” the result of being abandoned by Javier (Luca Calvani), who she meets in London? In one of the film’s weakest scenes, he says he’s leaving because she doesn’t “need” him anymore. Is that his hurt ego speaking, because she’s become such a success? Or could he not handle a woman who was perhaps more than a little self-absorbed? Because we don’t understand him, by extension, we don’t understand her, either! (Was she just temporarily devastated, or did this breakup make her resolve never to need a man again?) There are no edges. What we’re left with is a therapy session, a film that group-hugs its every obstacle into submission.

The film says it’s based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter, and for a fleeting instant, I thought it might be a monster-mother saga like Mommie Dearest, which painted the Hollywood star Joan Crawford as the worst parent in the solar system. Or closer home, you may remember Gandhi, My Father, where we see a man so busy being the Father of the Nation that he forgets to be a father to his son. The word “normal” is thrown around a lot in Shakuntala Devi, and I think a case can be made that most people we admire for their achievements aren’t really “normal”. They are driven in ways normal people aren’t, otherwise they may not have ended up “special”.

So, on paper, it’s a terrific idea to see how a mother’s genius impacted a “normal” daughter (Anu, played by a not-bad Sanya Malhotra in a series of very questionable wigs). But the characters cry out for flesh and blood, dimension and depth. I loved the conceit that Shakuntala Devi was trying to overcompensate for her own indifferent and cowed-down mother, who barely spoke. So why not give us at least one scene with that mother, instead of simply looking at her through… her daughter’s eyes! Instead, we waste endless (and very repetitive) moments on Shakuntala Devi’s “maths tricks”. The numbers she computes appear on screen as animated bits, but after the fifth time you’ve seen her calculate the cube root of 726495028266228, the routine loses its magic-show allure.

Several underexplored aspects of Shakuntala Devi’s life are frustrating in the so-near-yet-so-far sense. Anu’s first word is not maa but baba, but why does this upset Shakuntala Devi so? Is it a “normal” mother’s pangs? Or is this a facet of this “special” mother, who’s grown used to the world revolving around her and now cannot accept that Anu’s world revolves around her father? Why does she not give the father’s letters to Anu? (This is after she’s whisked the girl away on her tours.) Is it to safeguard Anu, as she claims? Or is it to ensure that Anu is reminded about her father as little as possible? She keeps saying things about being a mother and being a woman, but everything about her — the mother, the woman — stays strictly at a surface level.

It’s easier to forgive the syrupy score and the TV-bright cinematography, with every corner lit. (There’s a lot of laughably shrill TV-level drama, too.) But it’s hard to overlook the writing that wants to cram in everything Shakuntala Devi did without clueing us into who Shakuntala Devi was. Blink your eyes, and she’s become an astrologer. Blink them again, and she’s contesting in an election. Most bafflingly, she writes a book on homosexuality and announces that it’s based on her husband. Given that we “see” so many things Anu could not have known about in this daughter’s-eye-view story, was it really so hard to slip in one scene about what her father said or did to sow this idea in his wife? Vidya Balan does things with her posture and her accent and she’s certainly the force of nature Shakuntala Devi is described as, but she cannot find what doesn’t exist: the soul of a woman who, possibly, preferred the constancy of numbers to the variables of life.

Copyright ©2020 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.