Shakuntala Devi: Vidya Balan plays a flawed, fantastic mathematician in a filmsy, fragmented film

3.0 rating based on 1,234 ratings

Director: Anu Menon
Cast: Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Jisshu Sengupta, Amit Sadh
Music: Sachin-Jigar
Cinematographer: Keiko Nakahara
Streaming on: Amazon Prime

In an interview with The Talks, Quentin Tarantino said he has “no respect for the biopic.” Going on to say that “They are just big excuses for actors to win Oscars. It’s a corrupted cinema”, Tarantino explains that “Even the most interesting person – if you are telling their life from beginning to end, it’s going to be a fucking boring movie. If you do this, you have to do a comic book version of their whole life. For instance, when you make a movie about Elvis Presley, you don’t make a movie about his whole life. Make a movie about one day. Make a movie about the day Elvis Presley walked into Sun Records. Make a movie about the whole day before he walked into Sun Records, and the movie ends when we walks through that door. That’s a movie.”

Shakuntala Devi is a biopic written and directed by Anu Menon, based on the life of the famed mathematician — told from the perspective of Anu Banerji, her daughter. Vidya Balan plays the role of Shakuntala Devi, the Guinness-record holding “human computer” who was also an astrologer and author, writing books on numbers, astrology and The World of Homosexuals. A genius mathematician whose passion from numbers stirred trouble in her personal life, Shakuntala Devi had to straddle multiple lives in one: a woman, a mathematician, a family member, a stage performer, a mother, all in a time when women were largely bound to private spaces of the home. Menon’s screenplay wins for it strays from being the usual sycophantic story about a supposedly ‘great’ person, and really tries to understand the eccentric genius through the human relationships in her life.

While Shakuntala Devi’s life is fascinating enough to read about, and it is definitely sad that more people didn’t know about her until Bollywood decided to tell her story, the movie begs the question “what really is the point of a biopic?” And Tarantino’s words echo in my mind.

The film Shakuntala Devi tries to be about too many things to be about any one thing. The film starts with a bang: Anu filing a criminal case against her own mother, the world famous mathematician Shakuntala Devi. From there it establishes that the universally difficult mother-daughter bond will be explored in the film. It moves from skyscrapers in London to huts in rural Karnataka, where 5 year old Devi is discovered to be a math genius by her family. Her parents milk her talents for money, depriving her of any formal education or a childhood. Devi goes on to becoming an independent woman with frivolous affairs, strongly determined to make it on her own. She is a jarring sight in a grey London: a young woman in a bright pink sari and two pigtails staying at a guesthouse with only male occupants. One thing leads to another, and she becomes renowned for her math whiz skills.

Vidya Balan is the star of the show; her Shakuntala Devi is complex and eccentric, equal parts a performer and a vagabond. Yet, Balan’s talents are wasted on a script that doesn’t really get into the depth of anything. We never fully explore her relationship with her parents and how that has scarred her. We see Devi at her best on stage, but on nights when she is alone and drinking, we watch her for a few seconds before the next brightly-coloured scene comes sauntering in. We understand her passion for numbers because it’s all she ever talks about — but only because she talks about it. The beauty of numbers and how they amaze her is never made apparent to the audience; it’s like listening to my 10th grade math teacher telling me about the importance of simultaneous equations.

Sanya Malhotra and Amit Sadh make a convicing young couple. Malhotra plays Anu Banerji with a certain spiky-ness that makes her character real and entertaining to watch. However, her narrative is also depicted at a superficial level. She comes and goes as fleetingly as Banerji and Devi stayed in a new city. Her rebellion against maths and motherhood just appears as childish and immature because none of the trauma she faced is delved into deeply. While her tumultuous relationship with her mother is a fascinating, fresh thread that hasn’t been explored in movies before, it feels incomplete. Such a traumatic relationship deserves microscopic vision to really find that unbreakable umbilical cord. It cannot be this dramatic only to settle with Bollywood-style melodramatic tears and a lengthy monologue about how Anu only understood and forgave her mother once she became a mother herself.

Shakuntala Devi is about too many things to just be about the fascinating brain and personality of the famed mathematician. Is it about mother-daughter relationships? Is it about the beauty of maths that only eccentric geniuses understand? Is it about poverty and illiteracy in a newly independent India? Is it a feminist film? Is it about a fierce woman who defeated all patriarchal odds and–hello–birthed a child out of wedlock and wrote a book about the lives of homosexuals in 1977 India?

The music of Shakuntala Devi stands out. Sachin-Jigar compose a quirky soundtrack with inevitable sad numbers for the sad scenes, but the songs are minimal and feel natural in the moment, heeding to the style of current movies. They feel true to the eccentric, not normal life of Shakuntala Devi and her daughter with all the right singers singing all the right songs: Sunidhi Chauhan is a fresh breath of air as usual. The cinematography is a bit on the nose; with Devi’s childhood visualised in dull, sepia tones, and her London life brightened with pops of colour. It only begs this question: how much will a strict visual and audio formula work for a film that has such black and white moments and not enough complex, grey scenes?

I keep returning to Tarantino’s quote as the explanation perfectly justifies why Shakuntala Devi is a flawed film. The biopic is great for the actor. Sure, Vidya Balan is a powerhouse of talent and perhaps only she could portray such a brilliant woman with such accuracy. However, the journey of Devi’s whole life makes for a worn-out script. She may have had a difficult life (like a lot of women in India), but to trace her journey from childhood to grandmother-hood just made it a “comic book version” of her whole life. Nothing was really shown in detail, so the audience can’t really have anything to hold onto by the end. The clarity and beauty of numbers, the interesting men in Devi’s life, her daughter’s hilarious rebellion or even Devi’s strained relation to her own family and origins.

Watch Shakuntala Devi for the fun, thoughtless film that it is with fantastic acting and a story lovely enough to make you have your feel-good, happy ending. However, if you actually want to know anything about the human supercomputer that was Shakuntala Devi, pick up any of the books she’s written — Figuring the Joy in Numbers, Astrology for You, The World of Homosexuals, Awaken the Genius in You. You’ll get a lot more out of them than you will from this film.

Watch Shakuntala Devi on Amazon Prime

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