Shakuntala Devi Starring Vidya Balan Is A Flimsy Retelling Of A Fascinating Legacy

Shakuntala Devi is more of a dramatic lecture than an intimate story.
Shakuntala Devi Starring Vidya Balan Is A Flimsy Retelling Of A Fascinating Legacy

Director: Anu Menon
Writers: Anu Menon, Nayanika Mahtani, Ishita Moitra
Cast: Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Jisshu Sengupta
Cinematographer: Keiko Nakahara
Editor: Antara Lahiri
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video

I don't remember where I first heard of Shakuntala Devi, the human computer. It certainly wasn't in school. The only mathematician we formally learned of was Srinavasa Ramanujan. He was an entire chapter in English textbooks. Ron Howard's A Beautiful Mind informally taught us about John Nash. In fact, the first name most Indian kids associated with the "mind faster than human computer" phrase was comic book hero Chacha Chaudhary. All of them, men. Most of my maths teachers were women, yet there was not one mention – even in passing – of Shakuntala Devi. Maybe it's because she showed them what was possible, and by extension, what they settled for. Maybe it's because she was perceived as more of a "showstopper" than an archetypical academic: charismatic, progressive, unapologetic…and female.

That's precisely why a movie on her – a pathbreaking performer – is a natural fit, and it's why the movie stars the one actress who has turned heroism into a gender-neutral and commercially viable reality of modern Hindi cinema. It's Shakuntala Devi making numbers more exciting and accessible, but it's also Vidya Balan subverting the rules of a male-dominated industry. It's a glamorous "female" celebrity who isn't a Bollywood star, but it's also a Bollywood star who has come to symbolize more than prestige and celebrity. (That "Vidya kasam" is Shakuntala's catchphrase only adds to the reel-real porosity).

But there's often a downside to such biopics. Genius has no gender, and it's primarily the failing of Indian culture that the nation's storytellers still choose to drum this into our heads in 2020 rather than fashion subtle reminders. Everything – including the dialogue, the art direction, the acting and soundtrack – is then designed to be aggressively corrective. Every scene needs to make a statement. This is also why a great story looks so reductive, reactionary and simplistic, as if it were overcompensating for not being a chapter in textbooks. The writing insists on framing womanhood as an adjective, and as a sophomoric lesson in the syllabus of history. For instance, Shakuntala Devi's childhood flashbacks resemble poorly produced stage plays. The exposition becomes derivative. Numbers float around a little girl's head when she thinks. When her sister remarks "tu bada aadmi banega (you will be a great man one day)," little Shakuntala sermonizes – like an adult teaching children – that there's nothing wrong with "tu badi aurat banegi (you will become a great woman one day)". Bangalore schoolteachers as well as almost every white man during her travels sneer at her like cartoonish villains – "you are a genius?" – before slow-clapping at the end of her show.

Every exchange is combative: A Britisher mocks her with "Am I to believe that an Indian lady in a sari and pigtails can do math?" to which she replies, "an Indian man in a dhoti and lathi defeated you all". Her book on homosexuality, based on her experiences with a gay spouse (Jisshu Sengupta), is vaguely referenced in a hurry; it adds nothing to the character, except a tickmark to the narrative checklist. Even her domestic conflicts sound as if two onlookers were describing an incident in binary terms instead of two adults arguing with each other. If you close your eyes, you can hear the script being read out in a classroom.

The patronizing treatment of a biographical tale is not new. But it feels doubly frustrating in this case because Shakuntala Devi, at least on paper, has a lot going for it. For one, it's about a person with a mental gift (like the protagonists of Pawn Sacrifice, A Beautiful Mind or The Imitation Game), which is why the conflict can't be external (like physical injuries or corruption for athletes); her conflicts have to be psychological by nature. As a result, the perspective chosen by the writers – that of her daughter Anupama (Sanya Malhotra) – immediately distinguishes it from the standard story. Most biopics are made like superhero films because the writers present the extraordinary subject in a way the ordinary world wants to see them. But the extraordinary instinctively look ordinary when seen by a loved one. This personal viewpoint allows Shakuntala Devi to transcend the reverential gaze. She's a magician and an ambassador, yes, but she's also human, and a woman struggling to embrace the sacrificial tone of motherhood.

I like that the tumultuous relationship with her daughter – the film opens with Anu filing a lawsuit against her mother – is the prism through which we are asked to view the legacy of Shakuntala Devi. It's refreshing to see the warts, and the inherent resentment that children of public figures are prone to nurse over time. Anu lashes out for being dragged across the world for a global education instead of letting her have a "normal" and rooted life in one city. (If one can get past the strange dolling-up of Sanya Malhotra as a teenager, it's not so bad). It's new to see the protagonist as the antagonist of someone else's story. Vidya Balan excels in the sequences where we see the irrational and selfish side of Shakuntala, a woman whose control of her independent daughter is a reflexive response to her own childhood. The shrill voice gives way to a suppressed sense of trauma and individualism. She has spent her life daring and daring to be; here, she dares to be unlikable.

At one point, Shakuntala even admits to have triggered a hostile takeover only so that it forces Anu to meet her in person. The unapologetic attitude of Shakuntala ("I can't live without my daughter, so?") in this context is where the film is at its most curious and rewarding. Some of her actions may seem far-fetched, but they're entirely within reason of a human whose mind works too fast to process regular emotions. She was an ace at multiplying and adding, but unfortunately just as adept at dividing. 

Perhaps the soulful perspective is the result of a group of women (director, writers, editor, cinematographer) making a movie about a definitive Indian woman. But I find it disappointing that even this complicated route is diluted by the "fairytale" treatment. Every strength I've mentioned above isn't subtext but text; it's all spelt out for the viewer in blatant words and conversations. Overbearing dialogue like "I'm not a mother, I'm still me" and "To love Shakuntala is to let her be" tend to sound literary and retrospective; they pull the viewer out of live moments and remind us that Shakuntala Devi is more of a dramatic lecture than an intimate story. This might make sense for someone who prided herself on holding a room in her fist. But giving her own room the same language is an artistic decision that lacks nuance. It relegates Shakuntala Devi from person to biopic, from name to title, and from number to statistic. After all, tapping the human side of a Human Computer is futile if the human, too, speaks in code.

Related Stories

No stories found.