I always nurtured this love-hate approach whenever my teachers mentioned the famous mathematician, Shakuntala Devi. I marvelled at her genius but was irritated by her achievements when she was used as a barb to point out my shortcomings in the subject itself. But I finally related to her with Amazon Prime’s Shakuntala Devi, a biopic depicting her life, which picked apart its legend to show her dreams and her flawed life behind the fame portrayed by Vidya Balan wonderfully donning the mantle of the enigma.
It is not that Shakuntala Devi doesn’t explore the mathematical brilliance of the famed mathematician. It depicts her as a force of nature that never shied away from flaunting her impossible prowess, not even in an era where women, especially the ones clad in a saree and pigtails, were not expected to own the male-dominated world with their intelligence, let alone silencing it with miraculous arithmetic genius. And Vidya Balan does it all with a big confident grin and a zest that slides towards whimsy a tad too often but is too infectious to resist.
But it is not merely here to narrate Shakuntala Devi’s journey as a legendary mathematician, author, astrologer, one-time politician, or the moniker she is still known by- Human-Computer. This one-of-a-kind biopic by director Anu Menon expands and rather than barely skimming, deeply explores what makes her a human before the legend she always will be.
Told by the perspective of the real Shakuntala Devi’s daughter, Anupama Banerji, we get to see a woman morphed by her difficult childhood that framed her willful attitude, turning her into someone who is exceptionally self-absorbed, and how it affected every single relationship in her life- with her husband, her daughter, her passion for maths, and her relationship with herself.
Shakuntala Devi, fraught with jumping timelines, begins in London in 2001. We see Anupama (a brilliant Sanya Malhotra), accompanied by her husband (Amit Sadh, again delivering a solid performance) facing her mother Shakuntala Devi (Vidya Balan), amidst a legal setting- she has filled a criminal case against her mother for financially destroying her. From here, with several jumps across timelines, we see meet a five-year-old Shakuntala in 1934’s Bangalore who is being paraded around by her father to cash in on her mathematical genius by making her do math shows but has no money to send her to school or to pay for her ailing sister, Sharda’s medicines.
When her sister dies and her mother silently stands by, Shakuntala woes to never need a man, to not be weak, and do whatever she wants.
Vidya Balan exceptionally portrays the life of a lively woman who hated staying in one place too long and who never thought twice before taking a decision- whether it was separating from her husband Paritosh Banerji (an excellent, but rather underused, Jisshu Sengupta) or inflicting her childhood on her daughter by lugging her around on her shows around the world and never enrolling her in a proper school.
But the places where Shakuntala Devi flounders are also many.
For starters, there are the continued attempts to make feminism another theme of Shakuntala Devi, which only serve to infuriate the viewer as more often than not they are means for Vidya’s Shakuntala to defend her selfishness.
Many crucial aspects of Shakuntala’s life are not explored with the depth they needed- how she managed to move to London, how her daughter felt when her mother forced her nomad life on her, etc. Then we have the jarring time jumps between 1934, to the 2000s, to the 1970s with zero smoothness and a typical Bollywood dramatic ending that will leave you clucking your tongue in disappointment.
Despite it all, Shakuntala Devi is unlike Indian biopics adaptations that choose to focus only on the shining moments that paint their subject in a positive light- it dares to present a humanized version of a woman we only preferred to remember as a brilliant legend.