Movies about mathematics invariably contain scenes of a tense and fevered genius scribbling numbers on a blackboard to the general befuddlement of everybody around him. Such films often reduce complex mathematical theories and complex personalities to simple calculations. Even though The Man Who Knew Infinity is dealing with one of the most unorthodox brains in the field, it does little to challenge the orthodoxy of the mathematical drama. Srinivasa Ramanujan, the subject of several books, documentaries and a Tamil movie in 2014, remains an enigmatic cipher. His theorems continue to perplex and excite researchers, and his singular life story continues to evade the limitations of the mainstream biopic genre.
Matthew Brown’s 109-minute drama is less about “the man who knew infinity” and more about the man who pointed him in the right direction. GH Hardy, Ramanujan’s mentor and collaborator, emerges as a rounded and compelling character, whose atheist values and firm belief in cold logic initially prevents him from understanding his protégé’s talents. This difference has much to do with the actors playing the roles. Dev Patel is miscast as the driven but emotionally tangled Tamil Brahmin who oscillated between ambition and family demands his entire life. Jeremy Irons steals the show as the patrician and charming Hardy who receives as much as he gives. Irons gets close to Hardy’s depth and wisdom, but Patel’s wide-eyed earnestness, which has remained unchanged since his movie debut in Slumdog Millionaire (2008), reduces Ramanujan to a class topper rather than an intellectual giant for the ages.Forged in India, finished in Cambridge
Based on Robert Kanigel’s biography The Man Who Knew Infinity (the author is also one of the producers), the film focuses on Ramanujan’s years at Cambridge and his attempts to fit into a predominantly white world. A previous Tamil biopic, Ramanujan (2014), was a clumsy but sincere effort to locate Ramanujan in the Tamil soil, and it covered his hardscrabble childhood in Tamil Nadu, his inability to pass college-level examinations because of his obsession with mathematics, and his growing fame in Madras that encouraged the local gentry and British officials to sponsor his travel to Cambridge University¸ where guidance, unlikely friendships, fame and illness awaited him. (Ramanujan died in Chennai from tuberculosis in 1920 at the age of 32.)
Ramanujan had been corresponding with Hardy, beseeching him to cast an eye on his scribbles and theories, and Hardy was impressed enough to push for a place for the prodigy at Cambridge. Kanigel’s account is rich in lore and detail, and includes stirring accounts of both men as well as the atmosphere at Cambridge in the early 1900s. The book painstakingly fleshes out Ramanujan’s personality, drawing out his traits and eccentricities, his obduracy and neglect of his health and diet, and his belief that his religious values were inextricably linked with his abilities. Hardy is on the mark when he describes Ramanujan’s pursuit as similar to the quest for art for its own sake in the movie.
The dynamics of the fascinating Hardy-Ramanujan collaboration survive the screenplay’s insistence on simplicity. Brown does a far better job of capturing the atmosphere at Cambridge than the intricacies of Indian family life. The intellectual jousting between Hardy and fellow scholars John Edensor Littlewood (Tony Jones) and Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) is more sincere and amusing than Ramanujan’s theatrical wringing of hands and coughing up of blood.
False drama abounds in a movie whose subject matter would confound even PhD students. Ramanujan’s Mills & Boon-worthy relationship with his wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) is given far too much flight, and the conflicts that arise from the machinations of his well-meaning but domineering mother Komalattamal (Arundhathi Nag) are reduced to soap operatics. Another attempt to generate tension in the by-the-number script also backfires. Hardy’s initial lack of enthusiasm towards his ward make little sense when it is well-known that the Cambridge mathematician was Ramanujan’s most vocal advocate right from the start. The real drama of how Hardy brought out the sparkle in the diamond in the rough is reduced to a clash of working styles. At the heart of Robert Kanigel’s book is the indefinable bond between the two men, vastly different in education, temperament, approach and cultural values. A different kind of movie is required for this relationship to find expression.