Filmmaker Anu Menon on SHAKUNTALA DEVI – Mythily Ramachandran interviews

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Director Anu Menon’s career graph is interesting. An engineering graduate from India’s reputed BITS Pilani, Menon worked in advertising before quitting it to start anew in cinema. She joined London Film School and equipped with a degree made her first London, Paris, New York in 2012-a breezy romantic comedy in Hindi. Collaborating with ten Bollywood filmmakers for X: Past is Present, Menon directed her second film for a section in this.

Busting Bollywood stereotypes Menon went on to make her third film, Waiting. This story explored a friendship that grows between an elderly professor -Shiv- and a young woman-Tara. The duo meet in a hospital’s waiting room since their spouses lie inside in a comatose state. If Menon took viewers on a trot around London, Paris and New York with her debut film, on her third venture, she kept viewers parked mostly inside a hospital. It’s a unique narrative that Menon created in Waiting-one with its mood and tone rooted in reality. And, with two brilliant actors as protagonists-the veteran Naseeruddin Shah and talented Kalki Koechlin, this story opening with a tragedy became a story of life and living. Exploring the web, Menon directed Season One of Four More Shorts Please! a tale of women bonding.

Menon is now ready with her next film titled, Shakuntala Devi’ This bio-picture traces the life of the late Shakuntala Devi- the legendary mathemtics wizard of India. Better known as ‘human computer’ Shakuntala Devi astonished all with her ability to multiply two random 13 digit numbers in a few seconds. And, rightly found her place in the Guinness Book of World Records.

National Award winning Indian actress Vidya Balan takes on the eponymous role. From the trailer it appears that Menon’s story goes beyond mathematics to explore a mother-daughter’s relationship and other aspects to show that Shakuntala Devi was way ahead of her time.

Mythily Ramachandran: What triggered you to make this biopic?

Anu Menon: I wanted to make my next film on women who have achieved in science or mathematics. Shankuntala Devi immediately came to mind. She was the obvious choice with regard to mathematics. I knew of her in my growing years though I had not read her books but was aware of her brilliance in mathematics. As there is no biography or a film on her, it excited me all the more to make this film.

Ramachandran: How long did the research take?

Menon: The research took three years of reading articles and searching for videos on Shankuntala Devi. My co-writer Nayanika Mahtani and I interacted closely with Anupama Banerjee- Shakuntala Devi’s daughter. She shared intimate moments with her mother.

Ramachandran: What were the stumbling blocks while scripting a mathematician’s story into a commercial entertainer?

Menon: Shakuntala Devi led a dramatic life. Besides a mathematician she was an astrologer, a politician and a person way ahead of her times. Her life was one of adventure. She was a fearless woman who was not scared of failure. She had this ability to take on life as it comes and not be apologetic. Neither did she restrict her life. For someone with no schooling, she went on to write twenty books. There was enough material in her life to portray her as a larger than life heroine. We explored an emotional connect in her story through the mother-daughter bond. The scripting flowed naturally to become an entertaining story.

Ramachandran: When did you consider Vidya Balan for the lead role?

Menon: From day one I thought of only Vidya Balan in the title role. She was involved in the journey from the early stages of scripting itself and in the development of the screenplay. We had costume sessions and dialogues coaches for her. She has her own method of approaching a character and has brought in a lot of value to Shakuntala Devi.

Ramachandran: What did Anupama say after watching the film?

Menon: It was a moving experience for her. She loved the way we had captured her mother’s life. She called it a befitting tribute to Shankuntala Devi.

Ramachandran: Have you faced any gender discrimination in your journey as a director?

Menon: I don’t think I have faced gender discrimination. Once you are the director everyone treats you as a director. There is a job to be done, there are responsibilities and you get on with it. On the sets people look up to you because you are the captain of the ship, you have to provide the direction and give them work. I believe in collaboration and have an open relationship with the team. And, it’s been good. I have never felt that because I am a female director anything is different.

Ramachandran: What’s next?

Menon: I wish to explore something new with every film. I like making character driven films with lots of layers and interesting conversations. So far I have explored character driven stories. Now I am keen on exploring plot driven tales and try my hand at action too.

Shakuntala Devi will stream globally on Amazon Prime Video on July 31.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Read Mythily Ramachandran’s review of Shakuntala Devi.

mithilyMythily Ramachandran, a Chennai based Indian journalist, is a regular columnist for Gulf News, a leading UAE daily. When this crazy film buff is not catching up with films, she is snooping around for those little-known stories of human interest, which eventually find a place in the Weekend Review of Gulf News.

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