When the trailer of Shakuntala Devi dropped, there was this criticism for making it way too cheerful with songs and dance. And then there was this counter-argument of why are we so adamant that biopic should be dark and moody. Well, to be honest, I am thankful to the people who raised both these arguments. Because that sort of made me search for some interviews of Shakuntala Devi and also look for details about the personal life of the genius. And if you would look at her available interviews, you can sense that lively energy in the way she speaks. Shakuntala Devi directed by Anu Menon is a likable film, but it is also a tricky film in terms of where it stands emotionally.
The movie is obviously about the great mathematical genius Shakuntala Devi. Her father saw the potential in her and her talent eventually made her the breadwinner of the house at a very young age. Her family dynamics weren’t that smooth and thus she had an unconventional outlook towards the idea of marriage and parenting. The tussle between Shakuntala and her daughter Anu because of this different approach of Shakuntala towards conventional norms is the core theme of the movie Shakuntala Devi.
The movie begins with a statement that the story is narrated from the perspective of Anupama Banerji, the daughter of Late Shakuntala Devi. The high cinematic energy you see in the trailer, which many may feel as an unsuitable characteristic for a biopic, gets a justification through that initial statement. Whenever we see Anupama in the movie (other than being that little baby), the tone of the movie has this toned down coolness. The journey of Shakuntala Devi up to being a mother is very much on the cinematic side. But for me what was surprising was the way it boldly showed the flaws in that person. The possessiveness and the way she was struggling to accept the reality that she was becoming the same person she never wanted to be etc are actually something we don’t see in biopics. And frankly, that portion of the movie which showed her problematic motherhood without discrediting her achievements was presented effectively. But the reason why I said the movie was tricky in where it stands was that, towards the end, it felt like they were trying to justify a flaw in persona using the maternity sentiments.
As I said, the movie itself can be divided into two as what Anupama knows and what Anupama assumes. Vidya Balan as Shakuntala Devi is extremely energetic in the pre-Anu phase and the movie is actually simply documenting various events in Devi’s life in that phase. When it comes to the sequences that featured Sanya Malhotra who played the role of Anu, Shakuntala Devi is more real and there is a considerable change in Vidya’s performance. It was that part of the performance that impressed me the most. The emotional breakdowns in that phase, even though cinematic, had a realness to them. Sanya Malhotra as Anu was also pretty effective and the movie demanded a solid performance from her as she was the one fighting against the title protagonist and her performance was able to create that real rift. Jisshu Sengupta as Shakuntala’s ex-husband Paritosh Banerji and Amit Sadh as Anu’s husband Ajay delivered performances that made the supportiveness of their characters look real on-screen.
The idea of feminism and equality is definitely explored in this movie as Shakuntala Devi herself questioned the conventional norms. And one good thing about that part of the story was that they did it without demonizing a particular male character. The movie actually shows us that Shakuntala Devi was a possessive mother who eventually made her daughter go through the same mental space through which her father forced her to go. The movie also says that her claim about the sexuality of her ex-husband was wrong. I do appreciate the movie for showing us these murky areas in her life, but it would have been beautiful if the movie wanted us to accept this genius with that humane flaw rather than using the excuse of saying “look at it from the angle of a woman rather than a mother” Tanahaji fame Keiko Nakahara is trying to place the movie in a positive space. The visual texture of the portions that show young Shakuntala would remind you of Captain America: The First Avenger. And there is a gradual change from that to a more real and bright set up as the story goes forward. They have tried to make it crisscross on a script level itself so that parallels can be drawn from the lives of the daughter and the mother simultaneously. The dialogues are on the filmy side. The music does work in favor of the movie and luckily the “Pass Nahi Toh Fail” song that has Shakuntala Devi dancing and singing with children is not a part of the main narrative.
For me, Shakuntala Devi the person was always that one-word answer to the question “Who is known as the human-computer?” The movie Shakuntala Devi showed me the flawed and vulnerable human side of this human-computer. If you are willing to overlook the self-contradicting philosophies of the movie, I think you will be able to enjoy it as a character study.
If you are willing to overlook the self-contradicting philosophies of the movie, I think you will be able to enjoy it as a character study.
Green: Recommended Film
Orange: Okay, Watchable, Experimental Films
Red: Not Recommended