Shakuntala Devi - Not Without Vidya Balan
The trouble with fictionalized biography is that you are forever left wondering how much of the film is fiction and how much of it adheres to the real-life story of a great genius, in this case, Shakuntala Devi. The film marks the bold directorial debut of Annu Menon whose main triumph lies in casting the versatile and extremely talented Vidya Balan in the title role.
True that the charisma of the reputed star tends to veil some of the rough edges of the real Shakuntala Devi.
But one must also state without doubt that Vidya Balan has given a wonderful performance and has also the character into the fun-loving, happy and cheerful genius the original Shakuntala Devi as stories about her abound among the masses. She never ever attended a formal school or college in her life but this, thanks to her gift and her genius, did not come in the way of her growth.
But as the film shows, this also impacts on her mind the needlessness of any formal education which impacts on her growing daughter till the father forces her hand to admit her to an expensive residential school.
The very word “Mathematics” sends shivers of fear and panic in different degrees among us right from the time we studied in school. So, for the world out there where patriarchy rules and girls are still assumed to be stupid and hollow, the three-year-old girl Shakku surprised everyone with her almost surreal feel for numbers, for adding, subtracting, multiplying, dividing, square rooting large numbers within the blink of an eye.
Her opportunist father, a failure in life, jumped at this chance of making a quick buck by earning through her magic shows of her mathematical genius. The little Shakku knows her worth and openly tells her mother that she is the head of the family because the family runs with her earnings and not her father’s. She could find out within the blinking of an eye, the fifth roots of seven-digit numbers, the cube roots of ten-digit numbers, and many more complicated problems. The men took her lightly and with some degree of amused tolerance but she proved all of them wrong.
By the time she has grown up to become a naughty, impish and pretty young lady, she is already participating in mathematical shows beginning with London and then right across the world. Vidya Balan invests the character with an impish charm and a naughty approach, making us gape at her one-liners and two-liners and also, entertaining us with her stage personality and performance.
She is also very conscious of her talent, her fame and her steadily increasing affluence. “Find out a girl who needs you” he tells her Spanish boyfriend when he tells her that he is leaving for Spain because she is a very strong woman who lives life on her own terms sticking out her thumb at anyone who thinks otherwise. During this phase, she proves the computer wrong and earns the sobriquet of “human computer” which she proves again and again.
But her personal life is shattered though she neither admits to it or seems to be bothered by it. She has cut off all her relations with her parents – the father for exploiting her and the mother for not protesting or trying to rescue her. She also holds her mother responsible for the sudden death of her crippled sister she loved dearly because the girl was not treated by any doctor.
This fracture in her relationship with her parents is repeated in her own life when her relationship with her wonderful IAS officer husband Paritosh Banerjee and with their daughter, Anupama, is spoilt almost forever.
The film is roughly divided into three parts – the first part featuring the little Shakku as the growing mathematical genius.
The second is the rapid growth of Shakuntala Devi along with her travels across the world which invests her with the desire not to remain rooted in one place for a long time.
The third part, which is structured in a circular way, begins with Shakuntala Devi’s daughter Anupama Banerjee proceeding to charge her mother with a legal case of cheating her of her earned income which, towards the climax, ends on a happy note, leaving nagging questions for us, the audience.
The four songs on the soundtrack positioned at the right places and the right times carry the nostalgic air of the period ranging between 1950 and 2000, and the songs are rendered beautifully by the singers without intruding into the cinematic narrative.
Vidya Balan’s costumes and hairstyles are in keeping with the period the film belongs to. Her putting on weight as she ages and her daughter Anupama is a grown woman is also taken into consideration. Her South-Indian tinged English in the beginning is both funny and precise. The cinematography and the editing contribute to colour, rhythm and glamour that suit the personality the film is about and also give it a very colourful look.
However, the one scene of the child Anupama in London who answers a difficult mathematical problem with the ease her mother does is not carried forward so this has no logical link for the same daughter hating Mathematics or anything to do with the subject because she considers it the main culprit that takes her mother away from her and from her father.
Her anger reaches a climax when her mother, during a launch of her book on homosexuality publicly states that her ex-husband was gay which is untrue. But when she confronts her mother, she coolly says it does not matter. Famous people need to make such statements. Her father is not bothered either because he knows exactly what his famous ex-wife is all about.
The problem with the film is that it keeps its focus, including the camera and the editing and everything else that goes with it, entirely on Shakuntala Devi’s personal and private life instead of detailing her professional evolution as an internationally renowned mathematical genius, astrologer, numerologist, teacher, author and electoral candidate all of which is rushed through at break-neck speed without elaborating on any of them in detail.
This does little justice to the totality of what Shakuntala Devi stood for. She once contested the elections opposite Indira Gandhi in 1980 and of course lost, but this too, is just brushed over with a tiny mention. But it does mention her Guinness Book of World Records entry, which she earned for multiplying two 13-digit numbers in 28 seconds.
Her 1977 book – The World of Homosexuals is a pathbreaking milestone as it came at a time when no one even used or knew the word “homosexual’ at that time. But this is turned into a drama of conflict between mother and daughter. It is considered to be the first Indian study of homosexuality. In real life too, this led to a conflict between the mother and the daughter but the film presents it differently.
In 1976, she got into a tussle with the Calcutta rationing department after refusing to volunteer her husband’s name for identification. “I want the ration card to be made out in my own name,” she argued, “taking me as a full-fledged individual, a complete person in my own right.” She put up a crusading fight to have this rule changed and she did! This finds not even a passing mention in the film.
The narrative is presented entirely from the perspective of the grown-up and married daughter Anupama who collaborated with the filmmakers before and when they were making the film. This narrows down rather than offers a much broader and more universal perspective of a woman who was born much ahead of her time, was determined never to lose, was arrogant about her fame and her self-earned affluence, and jealously possessive of her daughter.
She tries to talk her out of her marriage to Ajay but the girl is adamant and marries him without her consent. There is a touching scene showing Shakuntala Devi visiting her childhood home which is empty, opening an old trunk and going through the things, till she breaks down when she finds a bundle that belonged to her mother.
Amit Sadh as Ajay, the good son-in-law in awe of his famous mother-in-law but not carried away by her has done a wonderful job in his brief role. Sanya Malhotra as the daughter is very good but she does not fit into the younger version.
Jishhu Sengupta as her husband gives her excellent support right through his presence and one feels empathy for this very good man whose wife left him just because she was more passionate about her vocation, name, travels, money than a normal family life. When her daughter asks her why she cannot be a normal mother, she laughs and says, “Why should I be normal if I am so amazing?”
The best part of the film is that it emphasizes towards the end, that once a woman becomes a mother, she is not allowed to remain a woman anymore and that is what Shakuntala Devi tried to struggle against all her life. Her daughter begins to understand this but only towards the end. Shakuntala Devi admits that she herself never considered her mother to be a complete woman and her daughter did the same. This is the best takeaway from the film and is its strongest feminist statement. It weaves itself naturally into the script and does not appear pretentious or fake.
But take away Vidya Balan from the film and it will collapse on its face!