Mothers and daughters…
Shakuntala Devi was a maths prodigy who used to perform unparalleled feats when it came to mental mathematics without any formal training whatsoever. She travelled widely throughout the world, displaying her talent in different countries through her shows and was even acknowledged by the 1982 edition of the Guinness Book of World Records. She was termed the human computer when she raced ahead of the machine to calculate the 23rd root of a 201 digit number, answering it in 50 seconds flat. She wrote many books about maths, about astrology and even authored a book on homosexuality, spreading positivity about it back in the ’70s when such discussions were still taboo. She was also a politician and even contested the election against Indira Gandhi. She really had a multi-faceted personality indeed and the film brings to light all that and more.
Director Anu Menon reportedly had extensive discussions with Shakuntala Devi’s daughter, Anupama Banerjee, for around three years and the story and the screenplay was a culmination of that research. The film is as much about Anupama as it is about Shakuntala. More precisely, it’s about the mother-daughter bond they shared. This emotional cement holds the film together. Otherwise, it could easily have turned into a documentary of sorts into the central character’s improbable achievements.
Writers Anu Menon and Nayanika Mahtani have wisely opted to sketch for us a picture of what Shakuntala Devi was as a person. From the start, it’s established that she was very much her own person, refusing to give up on her sarees and her twin plaits even while touring Europe. She quickly polishes up her rudimentary command of English, picks up how to move about in fine society and soon bedazzles the world with her talent. Her relationships with the men in her life are shown to be tumultuous. She is hugely put-off by her father, whom she feels considers her to be a money-making machine. Her ties with her Spanish mentor get snapped. Her bond with husband Paritosh Bannerjee is shown to be a blow-hot, blow-cold kind from the start which later erodes completely.
Her daughter Anupama is shown both bewildered and hurt by the partition of her parents. She’s too small at first to understand the reasons behind it and to fully comprehend the complexity of the bond mothers and daughters share. The film showcases the inner journey of both Anupama and Shakuntala who both learn with time to go past the hurt and anguish to discover the wealth of love that lies beneath. Anupama and Shaunktala both seem to want different things from life. They are flawed, complex and prone to a list of follies that make us all human. It’s a delight to see such detail in the emotional layering of characters.
This kind of subtext-filled narrative needed dependable actors who have the range to pull it all off and director Anu Menon couldn’t have chosen two better actresses than Vidya Balan playing Shakuntala Devi and Sanya Malhotra playing her daughter Anupama. Vidya has made it a habit of raising the bar with every release of hers and does it here as well. She eases into her role frame by frame and as the film progresses, one feels one is watching the real-life Shakuntala Devi and not an actor essaying her character. The joy she feels solving complex maths problems is real and so is her anger, her torment when she fights with her husband, or later, when she has altercations with her daughter. Vidya has this quality of feeding off actors around her and again director Menon has been lucky in casting Jisshu Sengupta as her husband. He’s the perfect foil for her dramatics and manages to hold your interest while letting her walk off with the limelight. Likewise, Amith Sadh is the perfect match for Sanya, bringing a calmness around her volatile character with his charming presence. Sanya goes from hate to love in this drama and makes you root for every aspect of her character through her acting. The change in her is gradual and she makes you look forward to the next phase.
It’s indeed a joy watching two accomplished actresses in one frame, bouncing off each other’s energies and having so much fun doing it. Both have aced their respective roles in this straight-from-the-heart film that teaches you that maths is simple, it’s relationships that have difficult equations…
Trailer : Shakuntala Devi
Sreeparna Sengupta, July 31, 2020, 3:30 AM IST
Story: A biographical drama on the life of Shakuntala Devi, the renowned mathematician, whose astounding skills of solving complex math problems in record time won her admiration and awe, the world over.
Review: ‘Shankuntala Devi’ not only explores the mathematician’s fascinating relationship with numbers but her relationships beyond it as well – especially her life as a mother and a woman. If Shankuntala Devi’s intriguing journey which started off as a three-year-old solving difficult math problems and doing her own shows across schools was not remarkable enough – her fearless and independent spirit as a young woman in the 1950’s, who lived by her own rules adds to her dazzling persona. One which she fiercely protects through every stage of her life.‘Why should I be normal, when I can be amazing?’ Shakuntala Devi (Vidya Balan) asks her daughter Anupama (Sanya Malhotra), when during a skirmish the later questions why she can’t be a ‘normal’ mother.
As the film takes us through Shakuntala Devi’s life, it becomes obvious that while her equation with numbers was seamless, her personal equations often ended up being miscalculated. While highlighting her glorious on stage moments during her Maths Shows, it also delves into her string of troubled relationships – with her parents, the over riding anger towards her mother for not standing up to her father when it mattered, the men in her life and finally her strained relationship with her daughter.
The first hour of the film keeps one engaged with a fun, entertaining narrative – where in 1950s London, we see an eager and endearing Shakuntala Devi giving it her all and trying to pull off her shows despite all the odds. Her makeover and brushing up of English language skills spearheaded by her Spanish friend Javier (Luca Calvani), sees her undergo a transformation which brings out her vivacious nature. She is soon the toast of parties and a woman who lives her life with abandon. And when love comes in form of Paritosh Banerji (Jisshu Sengupta), she jumps right into the moment, by proposing marriage to him and having a baby soon after. It is when she is finally torn between motherhood and being the woman who she inherently is – a maths whiz, doing shows world over, that she is compelled to make some difficult choices.
Director Anu Menon brings to us the life of a woman whose story is so enthralling that it is hard to look away. However, at times the narrative does seem to be rushed, as though ticking off milestones in Shankuntala Devi’s life, one after the other in quick succession (and to be honest there are so many). Also the tonal shift from breezy to a dramatic and emotional one is a bit uneven at times (writers – Anu Menon, Nayanika Mahtani). The film has been well-shot (Keiko Nakahara) keeping the different periods in mind and Balan’s looks (Costumes – Niharika Bhasin) through the ages blend in well. While the soundtrack (Sachin-Jigar) is peppered with peppy numbers, the one to linger on is the soulful ‘Jhilmil Piya’ (singers – Benny Dayal, Monali Thakur, lyrics – Priya Saraiya).
Vidya Balan gets under the skin of her character and simply aces it in the titular role – she gives an unrestrained performance as Shakuntala Devi from the 1950s to 2000s which is captivating to watch, as every stage of her life unfolds. Jisshu Sengupta as the suave and sensitive Paritosh is a delight to watch and Amit Sadh as Anupama’s supportive husband, Ajay makes an impact even with his limited screen time.Sanya Malhotra as the slightly older Anupama brings in poise to her character, although her teenage act doesn’t quite pass off that easily.
But ultimately ‘Shakuntala Devi’ is a joy to watch simply to soak in the fascinating life and times of the maths whiz – a human computer faster than an actual computer, the free-spirit, who was all that and so much more! Vidya Kasam, don’t give this one a miss.