SHAKUNTALA DEVI – Review by Mythily Ramachandran

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Which daughter files a criminal case against her mother? What drove Anupama Banerjee to file a case against her mother, the legendary mathematician, Shakuntala Devi?

The film opens in London in 2001 with Anupama (Sanya Malhotra) meeting her lawyers. And, when the mediator asks her if she was sure about going ahead with the criminal case that could send her mother to jail, Anu’s reply is a clear ‘Yes.’

Narrated through the eyes of a daughter, director Anu Menon takes us on a journey that begins in Bangalore in 1934 where the little Shakuntala astounds her cousin with her mathematics acumen. The child prodigy becomes a money spinning machine for her family much against her wishes. When her elder sister Sharda- an invalid- dies for not receiving medical care, Shakuntala holds her parents responsible for Sharda’s death. Her resentment and anger towards them is fueled further.

Menon explores an emotional story while tracing Shakuntala Devi’s (played by Vidya Balan) life revealing little known aspects of this number crunching genius. This mathematics wizard’s life is made up of many interesting moments. Independent and daring Devi lived life on her terms with a never say die attitude.

After firing a shot at her lover she leaves India and arrives in London in 1955 to make a new beginning in an era when Indian women seldom traveled alone. Her self-confidence is inspiring. In an alien country Devi with a smattering of English was determined to make a living out of mathematics shows. She visited institutions with her idea and despite rejections she walked into the building of the Royal Society of Mathematics to astonish a gathering of people with her command over numbers.

Her meeting there with a Spanish gentleman, Javier, takes Shakuntala’s journey ‘to the next level.’ There is no looking back for Shakuntala who subsequently carves her place in the Guinness Book of World Records. But before that she earns the sobriquet ‘human computer’ for proving a computer wrong at a BBC show. Even scientists could not fathom how her brain worked.

With her two long braids and attired in vibrantly coloured saris with matching flamboyant jewelry, Shakuntala, who had never gone to school, did India proud. She had this ability to make mathematics easy and fun. Her shows were peppered with witty repartee. Whoever thinks mathematicians are boring must check out this woman’s tale.

Vidya Balan carries the film on her shoulders and with elan. She brings alive the feisty Shakuntala Devi. The woman who initially struggled with English is transformed into a rock star holding centre stage as years go by.

As Balan takes viewers through different stages of Shakuntala’s life, we invest in her journey-sharing her joy at her victories and feeling her pain when life comes full circle and her relationship with her daughter is estranged. Shankuntala’s possessiveness over her daughter pushes the child further away especially when Anupama longed to spend time with her father, too. That, Anupama had not seen her father for ten years is a revelation.

Sanya Malhotra dances the perfect tango with Balan. Her Anupama wrestling with a life under her mother’s shadow is very much Shakuntala’s daughter in spirit. Ironically both the women had a common challenge and that is not to be ‘like my mother.’ Malhotra is perfect in her role.

The script written by Menon and author Nayanika Mahatani with dialogue by Ishita Moitra is brilliant. Many pertinent questions are raised-“Why do men always want women to need them? ‘Do women lose their brains after they become a mother?’ ‘When people can sing, dance and do drama on stage why can’t I do a math show?’

The humour is neat and you can’t help laughing aloud like Shakuntala. While this story is centered around two women, the men in their lives are endearing. If Paritosh, Shakuntala’s husband –played by Jisshu Sengupta- believed in letting his wife do what she loved most, Ajay Abhay Kumar (played by Amit Sadh) stands rock like by Anupama’s side, understanding her like no other. Luca Calvani as Javier is remarkable.

Many scenes stay with you. There is a beautiful moment captured when Anupama is trying in vain to put her baby to sleep and her mother-in-law steps in to help her. Later Ajay joins in.

Poignant is the scene where Shakuntala and Anupama meet with their lawyers. Indeed a mother-daughter relationship cannot be explained that easily.

As Shakuntala says, “Life’s lessons start with a zero.” And, “You cannot box a woman into the role of a mother only!”

Shakuntala Devi is a good watch that leaves you in awe of this woman with an indomitable spirit.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Read Mythily Ramachandran’s interview with Anu Menon on THE FEMALE GAZE.

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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