When the trailer of Anu Menon's Shakuntala Devi came out, my mind immediately flashed back to the excruciating Four More Shots Please, a series created by her. I wondered how a director who has, over twenty episodes, stubbornly reinforced the laziest, silliest stereotypes of women, men, mothers, and pretty much everyone, while pretending to upset the status quo, would tackle the tale of a historical figure with Vidya Balan in the titular role. Surely, she'd bring in something new. Surely, she'd leave the sermonizing to Season 3 of her series and instead focus on the fascinating story of a mathematical genius.
I have bad news.
The film begins with lil Shakuntala solving complex calculations in seconds. Her father spots her talent, and turns her into some sort of a circus clown. Instead of going to school, she holds stage shows and makes good money. Her sister tells her she'll be a "bada aadmi" one day, to which Shakuntala rebukes that she'll be a "badi aurat" instead. The girls make a pact to stay together forever, which is clumsy foreshadowing for the very next scene where the sister is predictably bumped off. Shakuntala blames the death on her mother. This is because she feels the mother did nothing to convince the father to spend money for the girl's treatment. The father is standing right there when this discussion is happening, and yet it's the mother who is at the receiving end of lil Shakuntala's rage.
The girl leaves home and grows up to become a successful performer. She's in love with a non-committal guy silly enough to leave his wedding (not to her) invitation in a place where she can find it. She shoots his ear off in retaliation. She moves to London after this incident, and introduces herself to her roommates by narrating this ear-shooting story. When the men she's telling this to look petrified at the prospect of sharing a house with this psychopath, she throws her head back and laughs like Shah Rukh Khan from Darr, and says she was just kidding, later ruminating with the housekeeper on men not being able to handle a woman who speaks her mind and laughs out loud.
Yeah, okay, I don't think that's what their problem was, Shakuntala.
Shakuntala is now rich and popular, buying houses across the globe. Good for her, but this also means we get a scene where her housekeeper comments that she's never traveled, to which Shakuntala scoffs and says that they are humans and not trees because they are meant to travel. Again, Shakuntala, I don't think the woman is staying put at one place out of choice.
The film flits between timelines. Sanya Malhotra (nostrils flaring and lips quivering) is Shakuntala's daughter, Anu. We first see her suing her mom, and now we are taken a little behind in her timeline, but much after Shakuntala's timeline, to understand the reasons behind the lawsuit. And you thought Dark was confusing?
Anu is married to the charming Ajay – charming in a 'snatching your ringing phone and threatening to answer it if you don't' way. Amit Sadh as the guy is actually good here, with a perennial what-did-I-marry-into expression. Anu is frustrated of being known as the great mathematical genius's daughter. Shakuntala herself is ashamed of the underachieving Anu, and feels that Ajay is beneath their status. She realizes this when she takes Ajay shopping, chucking ready-made shirts and coats into his hands without checking the sizes. She tells him that she wants him to move to London with them, and he says he'd like to stay in Bangalore with Anu. Shakuntala is triggered by this, and launches into a diatribe questioning why women must expect their sons to stay with them but let their daughters go away. I mean, it's the daughter who wants to stay in Bangalore, but director Menon has always had a thing for preferential feminism. And then without warning, Shakuntala shows Ajay the scars from her C-section, asking him if he can do the same for her daughter. Anu is mortified at her mother's behavior. She confronts her, and the mom tells them to get divorced, to which Anu replies "Actually maa, I'm divorcing you".
In flashbacks from Anu's childhood, it is revealed that Shakuntala left her love for mathematics to bring up Anu, and a year into motherhood realized that she cannot stay away from her first love. She resumes her job and travels the world, leaving the baby in the care of her father. When someone asks Shakuntala if she's still a genius, she's offended that people are assuming women to be incapable of balancing their career and motherhood. The audience applauds, but this film has spent all this time vilifying Shakuntala for being a terrible mother who couldn't balance career and motherhood. A touring Shakuntala, on hearing her baby say 'baba' instead of 'mumma', packs her bags, rushes to India, rebuffs her husband for reasons I do not quite understand, and takes the baby away.
Anu grows up without her father because her mom wanted full custody, and without friends because her mom didn't want to quit her globe-trotting job. She isn't allowed to read her father's letters either. A teenage Anu is invited to Shakuntala's book launch where she publicly outs her ex-husband's homosexuality. Anu is shocked at her mother's behavior, especially when the latter admits to doing this only for the publicity of her book. Shakuntala realizes that Anu is developing a mind of her own and decides to gift her a house, allowing her to redecorate it and kick-starting her interior decoration business. The two work together and make a fortune but wait a minute!
Didn't a previous scene establish that Shakuntala was ashamed of her underachieving daughter? Wasn't Anu resentful of her mother who never had time for her? Then why have they shown Shakuntala sacrificing her career yet again and being there for her daughter? Did they just forget about all of these issues or did they go back into the past to change the course of events?
Either way, Anu leaves her mother for good and continues her work in Bangalore. She hates the prospect of motherhood and goes around telling everyone that she'll never have kids. In one scene where Anu starts to feel like Ajay is putting pressure on her to become a mother, the oven goes ting, to which Anu says "Ye ghanti mere oven ki hai mere biological clock ki nahi". If you've kept up with the foreshadowing this film has indulged in, you can predict that the very next scene shows Anu learning that she's pregnant. And she is thrilled. I mean, it's good to be thrilled, but weren't you just..
Okay I give up.
A year passes. Anu is finding motherhood challenging but is also very occupied with work. During a work thing her friends accost her and ask her why she's not with the baby. Anu tells them that she's learning to balance the two, to which her shocked friends tell her that a woman should always pick motherhood. This triggers an epiphany in her, and she leaves and rushes to the baby. She realizes that unlike her mother who wasn't there for her (she was, but in an alternate reality I'm assuming), she can still be there for her kid and set an example for women.
Things seem to be falling into place, but then Anu learns that Shakuntala has used the power of attorney to transfer all of Anu's properties to her own name. Shakuntala isn't SRK from Darr anymore; she's SRK from Baazigar. Anu rushes to London with her lawyer, and after a tense staring contest, Shakuntala reveals that she has no interest in keeping her daughter's property and did all this only so she could meet Anu. Anu is repelled, as are the lawyers who were clearly not in on this stupid, irresponsible prank. "Mothers and daughters", they say and walk out, as does Ajay who has really had enough of this tomfoolery.
Anu sees the scrapbook her mother made of all her pictures around the world, and patches up with her. The pictures look laughably photoshopped, a damning, if unintentional, showcase of the irony of Shakuntala being an absentee mother in Anu's growing up years and hence forging memories she wishes had existed.
I'm glad they could make it work, even though the multiple timelines and alternate realities are confounding.
As is a scene where Anu's father says "Shakuntala ko pakadna mushkil hi nahi, namumkin hai", an innocuous enough reference, except that this scene is set in a time period much before the film that the man was referencing came out.
That is way too much time travel for one movie.