Film to showcase Ramanujan's genius
The soft launch of a multi-million dollar Indo-UK feature film on math genius Srinivasa Aiyangar Ramanujan’s fabled friendship with Cambridge don GH Hardy was formally announced in the presence of President APJ Abdul Kalam at Rashtrapati Bhavan on Monday afternoon.
The biopic, scheduled to roll early next year, is the brainchild of two men – British actor-director Stephen Fry and Indian filmmaker Dev Benegal, who, unknown to each other, had for many years nurtured the dream of bringing Ramanujan’s life to the screen.
“Both of us strongly felt that the fascinating story of Ramanujan’s journey to England and his collaboration with Hardy had to be told,” says Benegal, who has so far helmed two feature films – English, August and Split Wide Open.
Fry came to learn about “the man who knew infinity” while studying at Cambridge. “As a literature student, I felt mathematics was a dry, drab subject,” says the actor-director. “Then I read about the Hardy-Ramanujan relationship in (English author and physicist) CP Snow’s foreword to a book authored by Hardy, A Mathematician’s Apology, and was completely hooked.”
Benegal’s interest in the brilliant mathematician’s short but remarkable life dates back to the mid 1980s. During the making of a documentary on the river Cauvery, the filmmaker had spent some time in Erode and Kumbakonam, where Ramanujan was born and educated.
“I knew back then that the Ramanujan story would be perfect for the big screen,” says Benegal. “When I mentioned it to people in Mumbai, they thought I was nuts.” So, the idea remained at the back of Benegal’s mind “like an unfinished symphony”.
The project took one huge leap towards fruition when Benegal met Fry’s production partner Gina Carter in October last year at the festival of British films in the French town of Dinard. Carter informed Benegal that Fry was looking for an Indian co-writer and co-director for a film on Ramanujan’s life. Things added up quickly and the film is now ready to roll.
The Ramanujan film, according to Fry, will be a far cry from the usual run of British Raj sagas. The challenge, he adds, is to tell a story about numbers in an engaging way.
Says Fry: “The drama will spring from the extraordinary social, cultural and temperamental contrasts between Ramanujan and Hardy. The former was a very conservative, deeply spiritual Tamil Brahmin while the latter was a member of a new generation of British intellectuals led by Bertrand Russell – socialist, atheist, anti-imperialist, anti-war.”The film will be co-produced by Gina Carter and Stephen Fry’s Sprout Productions and Benegal’s Tropic Films.
Carter, who also served as producer of Fry’s directorial debut feature, Bright Young Things, says: “Stephen and Dev are currently in the process of scripting. Although nothing is final yet, we are toying with the idea of Stephen helming the India segment and Dev directing the Cambridge portions.”
Ramanujan, a college dropout from a poor family, was a Madras Port Trust accounts clerk with little formal education but a way with numbers. He wrote a letter to Hardy in early 1913, enumerating some of his pioneering theorems. Once he had rid himself of the initial scepticism about Ramanujan’s credentials, Hardy invited him over to Cambridge. The lives of the two men changed forever.
The five years that the vegetarian Ramanujan spent in England took a toll on his health. A year after his return to India in 1919, Ramanujan passed away at the age of 33.
Hardy, who described Ramanujan as “a transcendent genius”, formed a special bonding with the “simple man with an incredible mind”. Hardy was amazed by Ramanujan’s ability to manipulate infinite series, continued fractions and the like.
For Benegal, the continuing relevance of the Ramanujan story stems from the mathematician’s contribution to the foundation of modern digital technology. He says: “President Kalam gave us some papers that he has written on Ramanujan and his number theory,” reveals Benegal.
Ramanujan’s story is a celebration of the power of the mind, says Benegal. “Without any support system to prop him up, he achieved what no Indian had ever done. He proved that the mind can never be imprisoned, that no matter where you came from you could be a part of the global scene,” he adds.
Clearly, Ramanujan’s story foreshadows the story of post-liberalisation India as much as it projects the Indo-British colonial engagement in a rarely explored light.