Shakuntala Devi was a mathematician, an astrologer, the writer of guides to arithmetic, a cookbook for men and a crime novel, the author of one of the earliest studies of homosexuality in India, an aspiring Member of Parliament – and also “Mum”.
The world knew Shakuntala Devi as a genius who could solve complex equations in as long as it takes to say “Srinivasa Ramanujan”. To her daughter, Anupama Banerji, she was a woman with “an absolutely vivacious personality” and “a great sense of humour” who was also “very emotional and possessive, affectionate and loving and so much more rolled into one”.
Shakuntala Devi was often called a “human computer”. Anu Menon’s upcoming biopic, which stars Vidya Balan, aims to discover the heart that ticked inside the machine. Shakuntala Devi has been made in consultation with Banerji, who lives in London with her family. Menon, whose credits include the film Waiting (2015) and the first season of the web series Four More Shots Please! (2019), has co-written Shakuntala Devi with Nayanika Mahtani.
The trailer presents Shakuntala Devi as a mathematical wizard who draws admirers wherever she goes. But at least one person isn’t impressed – her daughter Anupama, played by Sanya Malhotra. The biopic will be streamed on Amazon Prime Video from July 31.
The subjects tackled by the movie include Shakuntala Devi’s fraught relationship with her family and, especially, the impact of her peripatetic life on her daughter. “We always box people, geniuses too,” Menon told Scroll.in. “It is important to capture the essence of the person. We are not sugar-coating things, but are being gracious about it. The film is about a woman who achieved something but also had her own Achilles heel. She owned her successes and failures and she kept moving ahead. Even geniuses are not perfect, they too make mistakes and have to seek redemption and own up to what they do.”
Shakuntala Devi was much more than a gifted number cruncher, Menon pointed out. “She wasn’t ashamed of her wealth or the lifestyle she had achieved – she was unapologetic,” she said.
Conversations with Banerji and the research by the film’s writers were eye-opening for Vidya Balan, who was Menon’s only choice for the role.
“When Anu Menon came to me, all I knew about Shakuntala Devi was what all of us knew about her – that she was a maths genius,” Balan said. “I learnt that she didn’t find the need to temper her expectations of herself because she was a woman. She enjoyed performing, her shows had a certain elan and were laced with humour. She loved the attention, she loved making people love maths and celebrating this gift she had. And she enjoyed the good life. She loved dancing. She would wear bright lipstick, she was always well turned out, and she coloured her hair. She wanted the good life and she worked hard towards it.”
The trailer portrays Shakuntala Devi as an impresario who appears to be channelling the showboating skills of her circus-artist father. “She was that kind of person, she had a zest for life,” Balan said. “I think her personality and her life story directed the telling of the movie. And, of course, she made maths fun, and we wanted to capture that too.”
Shakuntala Devi was born on November 4, 1929. Her father was a trapeze artist and a magician. Shakuntala Devi gave her first professional performance at the age of six, in which she demonstrated her prodigious memory and ability to solve arithmetic problems with extraordinary speed.
In the 1950s, she began travelling around the world, displaying her skills on stage and on television. In 1980, she performed at the Imperial College in London, where she multiplied two 13-digit numbers in 28 seconds – a feat that won her a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1982.
Five years earlier, Shakuntala Devi had already crossed another milestone by writing The World of Homosexuals, considered one of the earliest studies of queerness in India. In Vismita Gupta-Smith’s 2001 documentary For Straights Only, Shakuntala Devi says that her troubled marriage encouraged her to conduct interviews with openly gay and closeted men and demand the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
Her relationship with Paritosh Banerji “created havoc in my life and my child’s life”, Shakuntala Devi said in the documentary. The marriage ended in a divorce. In the film, Jisshu Sengupta plays Banerji.
Shakuntala Devi’s refusal to be shackled by her emotional problems and her confidence in her abilities even led to a brush with electoral politics. In 1980, she contested two seats for the Lok Sabha as an independent candidate from Mumbai South and Medak in Andhra Pradesh. Her opponent in Medak was Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Shakuntala Devi could not translate her stage popularity into votes, and fared badly in both the elections.
An article in Himmat magazine in 1979 observed, “Despite her mathematical mind, Mrs Devi, I am afraid, just does not add up… To her being Prime Minister or President ‘is something like being a housekeeper’. By entering the fray she wants to ‘deglamourise’ politics. Politics should not be a full-time affair, she feels, and more like her should enter.”
The tireless achiever also wrote several books, including guides to arithmetic, and a puzzle column in the Times of India. The film on her life has the potential to restore her reputation as a rare woman in the Science Technology Engineering and Math field. The contributions of Indian women scientists were cursorily explored in the 2019 film Mission Mangal, a fictionalised account of the Indian government’s Mars Orbiter Mission. Vidya Balan played one of the scientists who balance domestic duties with the complex task of manoeuvring the orbiter in space.
Director Anu Menon had grown up with reports of Shakuntala Devi’s mathematical genius. “It started out with a stray comment by my daughter who was eight at the time,” Menon recalled. Her daughter wanted to know why boys liked maths and girls English. “Why would a young child say that? Maybe we need to show women in science on the screen,” Menon said.
Menon’s quest became richer and deeper after she met Anupama Banerji and her husband, Ajay Abhaya Kumar, in London in 2016. “We met at Harrods, which was Shakuntala’s favourite place in London,” Menon recalled. The meeting lasted six hours and was equally moving for Banerji and Menon.
Banerji was still steeped in memories of her charismatic mother, who had died on April 21, 2013, at the age of 83.
“When we met, her daughter was grieving, and it [the biopic project] was almost like a catharsis for her,” Menon said. “We agreed that there was no point in making on what is already on Wikipedia. There would be no point in making a biopic if we weren’t going to go beneath the surface. We found Anupama and Ajay to be open and honest and willing to go along on this journey. Much gratitude to them for allowing us into their private space and having the trust that we would not misrepresent Shakuntala Devi’s life or make it sensational.”
The research included viewing clips of Shakuntala Devi performing calculations on television. In an undated programme filmed for the Canadian broadcast network ATN, the mathematician impresses a panel and the studio audience by coming up with answers nano-seconds after the questions have been asked. Wearing a sari and a big grin, Shakuntala Devi revels in her brilliance.
“These numbers are a bit nasty,” one of the panellists tells her. She replies with relish, “Come on, be nasty.”
Another panellist describes numbers as “messy”. Shakuntala Devi disagrees. She has previously told the programme host that she considered mathematics to be “the greatest logic” and “the only truth in the world”. She declares, “Numbers are never messy.”
How did she do it? Arthur R Jensen, a professor of educational psychology at the University of Berkeley, said after studying Shakuntala Devi in a paper in 1988, “Her skills with numbers were like those who didn’t think about the placement of typewriter keys…No one knew exactly how she did these things, and nor did she.”
The mathematician reached for a spiritual explanation for her scientific achievements. “Nobody can tell what ticks inside the head, I just get the answer,” she told the ATN show host. “It is god’s gift, a divine boon.”
Her felicity with numbers explains another of her great loves, astrology. “In order to be a good astrologer, you have to have excellent mathematical knowledge,” she said in the ATN interview. “If you are good in mathematics, you will create a perfect horoscope.”
She frequently dismissed the “human computer” label conferred on her. She pointed out that humans created computers, and will always be superior to the machines.
A New York Times report from 1976 marvelled at the woman “who has difficulty remembering her birth date” but could “give you the cube root of 188,132,517 – or almost any other number – in the time it took to ask the question”. The biopic will explore how Shakuntala Devi made the pursuit of mathematics appear to be the most joyous thing in the world, rather than a dull and difficult subject, Anu Menon said.
“There is a fair bit of maths in the film,” Menon added. “Her maths was not about sitting in a room and solving theorems, her maths belonged with the people. There was showmanship in the way she performed.”
For Vidya Balan, who has played her fair share of independent-minded and tough women, the role was an opportunity to play an “incredible lady” who “lived life to the fullest”. Balan added, “There was a sense of responsibility too, especially when the family has shown so much trust. It’s not like they have only shared the good bits. The film is an attempt to capture the spirit of the person.”
Menon saw parallels between her lead actor and her biopic subject – which is why she could only think of Balan for the lead role. “They are very similar in the way they have lived their lives, they both have the courage to follow their inner voices,” Menon said. “They don’t allow their self-worth to be determined by the validation of others. They both have high energy, this big laugh, the wit. Vidya has the same essence as Shakuntala – to do what you feel like and don’t worry about the consequences.”
Anupama Banerji is among the fortunate few to have watched Shakuntala Devi before its premiere. “My mother had no boundaries and lived life to its fullest,” she said. “It was interesting to relive all those instances and to reminisce about all that happened. It was a lot of mixed emotions. That is how our relationship was – up and down. The main thing was that I was ecstatic.”