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
Shakuntala Devi is the biopic of a woman without limits.The real life Shakuntala was a math wizard, who was famously known as the human computer. Her name was in the Guinness Book of World Records. She was also a globe-trotting stage performer, an in-demand astrologer, a best-selling book author who wrote one of the earliest records of what it means to be gay in India and an aspiring politician who stood for elections. This was a woman fueled by ambition and dynamism who refused to be curtailed by societal norms. In the film, she says, ‘Jab amazing ho sakti hoon toh normal kyun banu?’ But genius comes at a price. Shakuntala’s marriage fell apart and her relationship with her daughter was so strained that at one point, she filed a criminal case against her.
There is enough material here for a franchise – I think her book called The World of Homosexuals, in which she made a case for gay rights in the 1970s, could be a film in itself. Such a rich and varied life is a daunting job for a storyteller. Director Anu Menon and co-screenplay writer Nayanika Mahtani make the unwise decision of trying to squeeze all of it in. The result is an uneven film, in which we get a frantically busy plot but not enough dramatic thrust.
The narrative hopscotches across decades, milestones, cities. The screenplay alternates between Shakuntala’s journey and her daughter Anupama’s life. The first hour plays like a highlights reel. We see Shakuntala rise to fame and riches with numbers floating, like in A Beautiful Mind, each time she does a calculation. But we get little sense of her inner life, her moments of loneliness or doubt. What was it like to be born with such an exceptional gift, to have numbers reveal themselves to you so you could give the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds. And surely it couldn’t have been easy for an Indian woman in the 1950s to make a name for herself in London. The film glosses over isolation, racism and sexism. Before you know it, Shakuntala is living the good life.
Shakuntala Devi gathers emotional momentum in the second hour when the film focuses on the fraught relationship between her and Anupama and the parallels in their lives. Shakuntala, who started performing from the age of 6, resented her parents for making her a show pony and the sole earning member of the family. But as she grows older, she comes to understand their compulsions. Anupama undertakes the same journey of reconciliation with her mother. The film is positioned as “a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter.” The real-life Anupama and her husband are the first people thanked in the opening titles.
This relationship provides the spine of the film. Because we see the chinks in Shakuntala’s formidable armor. She is impulsive, insecure, selfish, even arrogant. And it is in these moments that we are drawn into her life. Vidya Balan does a splendid job of embodying this walking contradiction of a woman. She captures Shakuntala’s ability to command any room she enters but Vidya also, with empathy, finds her flaws. Her and the lovely Sanya Malhotra flesh out this thorny relationship even when the writing is working against them. In a pivotal scene, Shakuntala and Anupama are being affectionate toward each other. The onlookers, all men, shake their head and say: Mothers and daughters. It’s clumsily staged but somehow, the two performers make it work.
The film’s glossy aesthetic also contributes to making the story less affecting. The camerawork, production design, costumes and make up is all so varnished that the complexities and challenges of Shakuntala Devi’s life are inadvertently smoothened out. And in any case, the screenplay isn’t interested in detailed exploration – in one scene, after solving a tough motherhood versus career problem within minutes, Shakuntala herself remarks: Itni jaldi problem solve hogayi. Maine toh socha tha bade patake chalenge.
But these fireworks never come. And some of the most dramatic moments of her life, like finding out that her ex-husband is gay, are discreetly tiptoed around.
Menon and the writers try hard to create a compelling portrait of a woman whose very existence defied patriarchy – even her sari and braids played a key role in breaking stereotypes. But the film fails to fully examine the tension between the clarity that Shakuntala Devi found in math and the messiness of her life.
In a 1996 interview in Hong Kong, Shakuntala said: Nobody challenges me. I challenge myself. I wish her biopic had that same note of defiance and daring.
You can see Shakuntala Devi on Amazon Prime.