W hen actress Devika Bhise was offered the role of Janaki Ramanujan, the famed mathematician’s wife, she already had a good equation with her subject. As a Johns Hopkins University student, Bhise was part of the stage version of Robert Kanigel’s book that has now been made into a Hollywood film. “Acting in the production was very rewarding,” she recalls. “While Janaki was not included in the play, I gained a broader understanding of Ramanujan’s work.”
For the film, however, New York-born Bhise would have to transform into an uneducated Tamilian Brahmin woman in the early 1900s, who supported her husband’s passion for maths. So she researched Janaki’s life, reading up old texts and travelling through present-day Tamil Nadu. “Filming on location in Kumbakonam, Chennai, and Pondicherry and wearing the madisar [nine yard sari] every day helped me adopt the mannerisms of the character,” says Bhise. A jazz singer and trained dancer, she also relied on her Bharatnatyam training to appear a little less American and a little more Indian.
Bhise had help from home. She learnt dance at her mother’s academy when she was five years old. “My parents also wanted me to have a strong understanding of my Indian heritage, so whether it was speaking Hindi or Marathi, reading and writing in devanagari, cooking Maharastrian food, studying Hindu mythology in detail, or travelling to India as often as we could, they ensured that I didn’t turn into an ‘American Born Confused Desi’,” she says, laughing.
As with most Indian families abroad, the Bhises made education the top priority - acting didn’t come into the picture until Devika graduated from college. She debuted in 2008, with the Uma Thurman film The Accidental Husband, you may also have seen her in some episodes of the American crime show Elementary.
While The Man Who knew Infinity mainly chronicles Ramanujan’s genius in his short life (he passed away at 32), Bhise was fascinated by Janaki’s life as a widow. The woman lived independently, lived on the money she earned through tailoring lessons. “She adopted a son and put him through school and college, despite being uneducated herself. And even though young widows in that era did not have many opportunities, she did her best to give back to the community,” she says. “All this helped my portrayal of young Janaki to be kind and intelligent.”
Bhise’s next project is the role of a college girl in Shambhala, a drama about a plane crash survivor in Pakistan. But of course, she’s hoping for a Bollywood debut, “ideally a biopic of a heroine like Jijabai or Jhansi ki Rani,” she says.
From HT Brunch, May 1, 2016
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