There are two Shakuntala Devis vying for attention in Anu Menon’s biopic of the celebrated mathematician. One is fun and the other is a mum.
There is the public figure who fills the room with her mathematical brilliance and the sheer force of personality. Perfectly turned out in saris (preferred colours hot pink and bright reds), this feisty woman with a big grin and a bigger brain impresses the Western world with her superfast ability to solve complex equations.
Numbers prove more steadfast than relationships – beyond the events and the television appearances is a halfway wife and a shambolic mother. Even as she piles up the encomiums and the wealth, Shakuntala’s marriage crumbles and her relationship with her daughter begins to resemble a train wreck.
Career or family? The world or home and hearth? Questions that bedevil women professionals around the world occupy much of the runtime of Shakuntala Devi, which is being streamed on Amazon Prime Video. The 127-minute movie gets its narrative drive from the tensions between supposedly contradictory states, but is also expansive enough to let viewers do the choosing. Although the saris-with-creases saga eventually tilts towards avoidable melodrama, Shakuntala Devi is considerably more complex than most Indian panegyrics about famous people.
The screenplay, by Anu Menon and Nayanika Mahtani, moves back and forth in time. In the present, Anupama (Sanya Malhotra) is suing her mother Shakuntala Devi (Vidya Balan) for freezing her access to the family fortune. The roots of the rift lies in Shakuntala Devi’s back story.
A prodigy who displays her talent at the age of five, Shakuntala Devi is trotted out for ticketed shows to boost the family income. She resents her father for exploiting her and rages at her mother for standing by silently. She vows to be everything her mother isn’t: outspoken, resolute and unapologetic. This proto-feminist puts a bunch of condescending men in their place by observing, what is scarier than a woman who speaks her mind and laughs with her heart?
The dialogue, by Ishita Moitra, gifts Shakuntala several self-regarding comebacks. Shakuntala is fond of saying “Vidya kasam”, translated as “God-promise” in the subtitles but equally an insider tribute to the actor who plays the mathematical maven with high energy and the flair of a circus ringmaster.
Although the movie is sometimes on the same warp-speed track as its subject, the sequences of Shakuntala’s years in London stand out. She lives at a boarding house run by Tarabai (Sheeba Chedda), a trailblazer in her own right. Shakuntala sheds her Indian accent with the help of her boyfriend Javier (Luca Calvani) and polishes her stage routine until it dazzles.
“I hate losing,” Shakuntala declares frequently. It initially appears that her marriage to Indian Administrative Service officer Paritosh (Jisshu Sengupta) is yet another personal victory. Paritosh proves to be an understanding husband, caring for their daughter as Shakuntala returns to globe-trotting.
The cracks begin showing when Anupama gets older. Forcibly separated from her father and dragged around the world by Shakuntala, Anupama becomes the surly creature her mother was as a child.
The inheritance of resentment that drives the latter portions of the screenplay gives Sanya Malhotra many meaty moments. Balan’s Shakuntala too gains welcome shades – she comes across as possessive and overbearing as she tries to control Anupama and her future husband Abhaya (Amit Sadh).
The humour-laced movie is too fond of its heroine to provide a full measure of Shakuntala’s complexity. A couple of instances of staggering pettiness wooshes by before their impact is registered. Shakuntala’s tireless projects to keep her fertile mind occupied similarly rush by in a series of montages. Her attempt to enter politics by contesting a Lok Sabha election, her endorsement of astrology and her authorship of one of the earliest studies of homosexuality in India are barely dealt with.
In trying to humanise the woman who was frequently compared to a computer, motherhood becomes the only benchmark of her personality. Depicted as a whirlwind for the most part, Shakuntala loses her zest as her bond with Anupama weakens. The movie too sheds its momentum, devoting far too much screen time to the debates between mother and daughter.
Can a biopic about a singular woman who stormed the male bastion of mathematics stay out of her domestic affairs? Shakuntala Devi goes further than most films in providing a layered portrait of its subject. It’s a pity that the movie eventually abandons this pursuit in favour of sentimentality and family drama.
Through the lurching, some things never change. Keiko Nakahara’s frames rarely shed their soft light and warm yellow tint even when the going gets rough. The characters don’t age convincingly enough, and their wigs can sometimes be distracting.
However, the actors stay on course. Jisshu Sengupta and Amit Sadh turn out solid performances. Sanya Malhotra is an affecting presence as the daughter who yearns for a “normal” mother.
Vidya Balan’s balancing act between the two Shakuntalas is as uneven as the movie itself. She is better placed as the perfect maths whiz than the imperfect mother. Shakuntala is like a storm and you need to get out of her way, Paritosh observes.
Balan is great at being this storm, shoving naysayers and chauvinists out of her path and creating a stir wherever she goes. Her best scenes are when she is on the stage or in the centre of a crowd, soaking up the attention and revelling in her own genius.
The inner world of this public personality proves harder to crack. By showing Shakuntala as the difficult child in the relationship, the biopic deepens the depiction of matriarchs on the screen but also abandons Shakuntala’s portraiture. The film gives us greater insight into Shakuntala Devi but tells us perhaps a bit too much about the maternal mishaps that forced the queen of number-crunching to stumble with her sums.
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