Shakuntala Devi movie review: Vidya Balan does a tightrope walk between maths and motherhood
Director - Anu Menon
Cast - Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Amit Sadh, Jisshu Sengupta
Shakuntala Devi lives like she laughs. She tilts her head back and unleashes a full-throated guffaw; hers is a belly laugh and it’s often heard in the 2-hour-10-minute biopic. Even when she is not laughing, the expression on her face suggests that she is in on the joke.
As a maths genius in plaits, she would have understood the value of humour early on. Shakuntala had an uncanny ability to make numbers dance. As a slip of a girl, she was participating in maths shows, supporting her family by answering tough-as-nuts questions. When she says ‘I never lose’, she means it.
Watch the Shakuntala Devi trailer here
Even in a field as crowded as biopics of geniuses, finding one on a woman who knows how to live life is rare. Geniuses who get their own biopics are tortured, enigmatic and largely male. Their worth is often recognised long after they are gone. Vidya Balan’s Shakuntala Devi ticks none of these boxes. She likes her saris, the attention, and her transcontinental lifestyle.
Shakuntala Devi, the film, dramatises the life of the maths wizard whose bold outlines are public knowledge. A girl whose talent for maths was identified at a young age, Shakuntala supplemented her family’s dwindling resources by doing maths shows from an early age. A fierce feminist before perhaps she even knew the word, Shakuntala lived life on her own terms.
After she shoots at a paramour who tries to fool her, she is sent to the UK where her first love -- maths -- once again comes to her rescue. A Spanish man named Javier teaches her English and the way of life in Europe, as she finds fame as the ‘human computer’, eventually working her way into the Guinness Book of World Records. She marries an IAS officer named Paritosh (Jisshu Sengupta) but she fails to find a balance between maths and motherhood. Her testy relationship with daughter Anu (Sanya Malhotra), who wants a ‘normal’ life, forms the main conflict in the film.
With so much going for the little girl in pigtails, it is a shame that the film never takes any chances, happy to stick to the same constructs Shakuntala herself despised. The film feels functional, in a race to tell us the entire story of her life while skipping over the strokes that made the real-life Shakuntala Devi a woman ahead of her time.
Chapter after chapter is shown, giving you as much satisfaction as turning the pages of your maths NCERT textbook, despite the detailed set design and the focus on period specific costumes. The sepia-toned tinge of her childhood spent in poverty merges into the lush colours of her youth in the UK without the viewer really getting any insight into her life.
The script by Nayanika Mehtani, co-written by director Anu Menon, Shakuntala Devi feels bland. The most important relationships of her life -- especially with the men she loved -- are explained away in expository dialogues. Paritosh and Javier get the sort of treatment usually reserved for women in Hindi cinema – just foisted there without much of an arc, with perhaps a song thrown in. Even something as important as Shakuntala authoring a book on homosexuality in India back in 1977 is glossed over in a cringe-inducing scene.
Shakuntala Devi truly focusses on only two relationships of its protagonists’ life – with maths and her daughter Anu, and even they get a short shrift, with emotions lost in exposition.
Vidya Balan brings a sense of vibrancy to Shakuntala – the maths genius who was a rock star at heart. Shakuntala is another addition to the long line of independent, free-thinking women that populate her filmography. Sanya is competent but fails to match up to her more illustrious co-star, especially when it comes to the scenes of mother-daughter conflict. Both Jisshu and Amit Sadh, who plays Anu’s husband Abhaya, are charming and solid. Amit gets what is perhaps the most fleshed-out male role in the film and does justice to it.
In the film’s defence, it is not a hagiography. Shakuntala is not perfect. She has her imperfections like the rest of us. The film seems in a hurry to get from point A to point B, like a standard cradle-to-the-grave biopic. A woman who never really understood the meaning of the word ‘normal’, Shakuntala Devi now gets a biopic which can only be described thus.