Cast: Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Jisshu Sengupta
Director: Anu Menon
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
A warm, whippy dramatization of the life of an extraordinary woman whose head for numbers is the stuff of legend, Shakuntala Devi is consistently entertaining and emotionally engaging, a triumph for both director Anu Menon and lead actress Vidya Balan.
The numbers indeed add up nicely in this warm and vibrant film marked by a controlled tone even when the sentiments expressed on the screen require a bit of heightening and a degree of melodrama inevitably creeps into the treatment. It is a fine directorial balancing act.
Vidya Balan, too, demonstrates exceptional skill in tempering a lively interpretation of an incredible woman with an air of normality, which appreciably enhances the appeal of the portrayal.
Made by an all-woman crew, Shakuntala Devi is definitely feminist in its essence, but that mercifully is not all there is to the eminently watchable biopic, an Amazon Prime Video release.
It presents a buoyant, inspiring portrait of a woman who lived life on her own terms, often came close to paying a price for it but never allowed herself to wonder if the choices she made in life were erroneous.
Shakuntala Devi is projected as the woman that she was – a citizen of the world who did not lay down roots in any one place. In fact, she pokes fun at her bureaucrat-husband, Paritosh Banreji (Jisshu Sengupta) – the couple married in the late 1960s – because he refuses to budge from Calcutta.
In one scene, in which she is with Tarabai (a superb Sheeba Chadha), the owner of a London guest house she checks after first setting sail for Old Blighty, Shakuntala asserts that we are human beings not trees; we have legs and not roots. She has wings too.
Her differences with her husband form a crucial a strand of the story. The husband describes her as “a storm” that you do not get in the way of. He steps aside when he realises that neither marriage nor motherhood can compel Shakuntala to drop anchor and bid goodbye to her passion for mathematics.
The screenplay, written by Menon and Nayanika Mahtani is, as the film states upfront, “based on a true story seen through the eyes of a daughter”. It depicts the making of a legendary mathematician, writer and astrologer in an era when a woman in a saree and pigtails was not expected to ‘perform’ miracles of arithmetic on the stage, least of all in cities across the world.
But just as important to the film is the conflict Shakuntala faces and the anguish she endures in the process of trying to balance her relationship with her parents, husband, only daughter and son-in-law with her ambition.
The film acknowledges the contribution of Shakuntala Devi’s daughter Anupama Banerji and son-in-law Ajay Abhaya Kumar, played on the screen by Sanya Malhotra and Amit Sadh respectively, in the shaping of the tale. But this isn’t a sanitised, lopsided biopic.
Shakuntala has her share of idiosyncrasies. In one startling moment, the reason she cites for writing a book on homosexuals upsets her daughter no end. The latter believes it is a lie. Her mother agrees. But she asks: What harm does a little falsehood do if it helps to sell a story?
Yes, Shakuntala had Devi suffixed to her name – that was only a recognition of her gender – but the film does not treat her like one. A clear demarcation is made between the world-famous mathematician and the woman behind the public persona. The film does not shy away from recognising her angularities, which caused her and the people closest to her considerable pain. Be that as it may, this character study has an unwaveringly positive ring to it.
No matter what Shakuntala is up against – a schoolteacher-father (Prakash Belawadi) who barely understands her, a painfully docile mother (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh), men who let her down and her only child who drifts away from her – she manages to find a way out of a spot and land on her feet.
“I always win. My numbers never fail me. My answers are never wrong.” ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ hold sway over her conversations. She is unapologetic about it. She is conscious of the discomfiture her confidence levels often causes for people around her, especially men. Shakuntala’s stance when anybody casts a doubt over anything that she is about to do is never defensive.
She speaks her mind and stands her ground, most notably when she goes head-to-head with the world’s fastest computer in a British television studio and proves her point in the face of scepticism from the show’s anchor.
Her lost childhood rankles. She blames it as much on her father, who prevents her from going to school like other children, as on her timid mother, a woman who never stands up to her husband. Shakuntala lets those unhappy memories determine her handling of her own daughter much to the consternation of her husband and the girl herself.
Numbers can be difficult to animate on the big screen. Both Menon and Balan handle the challenge squarely and extract great excitement out of the many situations that hinge on Shakuntala Devi fielding questions from an audience, often composed of hard-nosed experts who give no quarters but always go away impressed with her freakish gift for rapid calculation.
The first time Shakuntala has a go at a maths show – in a mid-1930s a Bangalore school – her father, having seen her magical ability to come up cube roots of multiple-digit numbers in a jiffy, makes a request to the math teacher: “Ask her a difficult question or else she’ll get bored.” The problem she is asked to solve is difficult enough but, as expected, it turns out to be a cakewalk for her.
Her luck with men isn’t quite so perfect. Her Bangalore boyfriend (Neil Bhoopalam) is daunted by her extraordinariness. In London, Javier (Italian actor Luca Calvani playing a Spaniard), with whom she develops a bond, feels that she is “rich and famous” and does not need him. Shakuntala asks in exasperation: “Why do men always want women to need them?”
The women behind the film – dialogue writer Ishita Moitra, who alternates between Hindi and English, both Pidgin and Queen’s; editor Antara Lahiri, who imparts pace to the film with a back-and-forth-in- time rhythm; production designers Vintee Bansal and Meenal Agarwal and cinematographer Keiko Nakahara who together conjure up a bright, cheerful colour palette enhanced no end by the hues of the heroine’s sarees – are all on the top of their game.
Vidya Balan, playing Shakuntala Devi from the age of 25 to 70, misses nary a trick. With subtle shifts in diction, body language and gestural feints, she fleshes out a strong, feisty woman both endearing and awe-inspiring.
It is easy to be put in the shade when the star of the show is this good but Sanya Malhotra conveys to perfection the vacillating emotions of a girl at odds with her mother’s global fame. And Jisshu Sengupta and Amit Sadh as men dealing with two strong-willed women go along for the ride, their feet firmly and believably on the ground.
Shakuntala Devi is an unmissable film and not just for the joy of watching Vidya Balan having a ball with numbers. Do make it a point to sit through the end credits, which start with photos from the personal albums of Shakuntala Devi and Anupama Banerji juxtaposed with freeze frames from the film and ends with the Pass Nahi Toh Fail Nahi song that sums up the spirit of both the film and the protagonist.