The only memories that I have of Shakuntala Devi are the ads that I used to see in newspapers like Times of India where she informed readers about her availability for astrological consultations. Then I happened to buy her book “Awaken the Genius in your Child” in the (now defunct) “Granth” book-store. Then there was a news report about a burglary in her house in Bangalore. But it seemed that, over the years, everyone had forgotten about Shakuntala Devi, the mathematical genius.
Director Anu Menon and actress Vidya Balan have strived hard to bring back the memories of the great mathematical genius (the human computer) Shakuntala Devi. In the last decade or so, Balan has established herself as an actress of substance – with roles in Bollywood being specially written for her. She seems to perform in Hindi films based on biographies of famous personalities with consummate ease and panache. Vidya Balan’s competence as an actress with a deep-rooted passion for acting shines through in all her performances.
Throughout the film “Shakuntala Devi”, you never get to see Vidya Balan – the actress. You only end up watching the trials, tribulations and heartbreaks that the mathematical wizard had to endure all through her life. The narrative flits between the past and the present adding to the movie’s appeal and intrigue. Whether Shakuntala Devi was as buoyant and cherubic as Balan has portrayed her in the movie is something we are unsure of. But as Shakuntala Devi’s life unfolds in front of us we are amazed at the remarkable facets of her life that we were never privy to all the while.
The movie begins with the middle class upbringing of a young Shakuntala in Bangalore - a sister who is critically ill but very fond of Shakuntala and a mother (Ipshita Singh) who is docile and timid but curses her daughter when she is defiant about not following her father’s instructions. Shakuntala’s father (Prakash Belawadi, in a brief appearance) is an avaricious man who refuses to send the young prodigy to school but instead capitalizes on her mathematical wizardry to make money and run the household. The young Shakuntala is so blunt that she tells her mother that she is the one who is running the household with the revenues that she is earning with her mathematics shows and questions the role of her father. It is this bluntness that causes her relationships in life later to be wavy most of the time.
While critics may say that the movie has focused more on the mother-daughter relationship than on her mathematical prowess or the accolades that followed, the truth is that without such subtleties depicting the raw human relations, there is an inherent risk of the film ending up as a documentary. But this is not the objective of entertainment. What sets apart Shakuntala Devi from other films in a similar genre is its attempt to stay close to reality and not ending up as a glorified tribute to the human computer. At no point does the film try to eulogize her. Instead her fallacies as a human being (as a daughter, as a wife and as a mother) stand exposed. The multiple layers of her personality are revealed in the plot – be it her impatience, her bohemian attitude to life as such and her joi-de-vivre. The confidence that she exudes and the air of arrogance that it brings along are very aptly depicted in her characterisation.
When her elder sister passes away at such a young age and her father stoically remarks that the family doesn’t have enough resources to pay for the medical treatment of someone who is going to die anyway, Shakuntala Devi is shocked. She knows about her ruthless father but now her ire is directed towards her mother. In a fit of rage, she looks scornfully at her mother, questions her silence and bears acrimony towards her mother all her life.
When she realizes that her beau (Neil Bhoopalam in a cameo) plans to two-time her she doesn’t flinch before firing a shot at him. Arriving in London and staying in an inn owned by Tarabai (the inimitable Sheeba Chadda who demonstrates enough spunk and has a sparkling screen presence in an abbreviated role), Shakuntala Devi faces rejection initially.
Soon Shakuntala finds support in a man of Spanish origin who mentors her. Intoxicated by her success, Shakuntala wins one laurel after another and unknown to her, arrogance sets in. She is incensed when her mother writes her a letter asking for financial support. Later when her mentor informs her that he wishes to go back to Spain and that he believes that she doesn’t need him anymore, a devastated Shakuntala doesn’t bat an eyelid when she asks him, “Why are all men like that?”
Yet, surprisingly, despite having a myopic view of men and marriage, Shakuntala Devi falls for the charms of a Bengali IAS officer Paritosh Banerjee (Jisshu Sengupta) when she meets him in Mumbai. The impulsive woman that she is, Shakuntala doesn’t care a damn about what the world thinks of her. The couple become the proud parents of a baby girl Anupama (Sania Malhotra in a nuanced performance).
Differences crop up between the couple and the feisty Shakuntala leaves home with her daughter. She accumulates huge wealth over the years but she is unable to contain the affection that her daughter has for her father. She is jealous of the fact that despite doing so much for her daughter, the latter pines for her father. In the process of not wanting to become like her mother, she ends up having a complicated relationship with her only daughter whom she gives birth to when she is 41 years old!
But she bears no grudges – occasionally meeting her ex- husband (even hoping for a reconciliation with her ex-husband) and allowing the father and daughter to meet each other after a gap of 10 years. She also promotes her book on homosexuality by claiming that her ex-husband was a gay too. This false accusation levelled against her ex-husband creates a wedge between the mother-daughter duo.
Their relationship improves for a while when Shakuntala Devi decides to devote more time to her daughter and stops doing her mathematics shows – despite getting featured in the Guinness Book of Records. But when her daughter falls for the charms of a young man Abhay (Amit Sadh), an exuberant Shakuntala initially approves of the alliance. But she insists that the couple should move with her to UK where Anupama has an interior decoration business. When the son-in-law insists that the couple plan to set up their own home, Shakuntala advises her daughter to forget her love. A war of words ensues and Anupama leaves her mother’s home. She gets married to Abhay in the presence of her father and Abhay’s parents. Shakuntala is not even invited for the marriage and neither is she informed about the birth of Anupama’s daughter. Shakuntala senses isolation and rejection. Her desperate attempts to reach out to her daughter end up in failure. The callousness of the daughter is a bit jarring.
When Shakuntala visits her maternal home after many years, she realizes her folly of punishing her mother for no fault of hers. The moment of epiphany soon arrives and that is when she decides to use the power of attorney to sell her daughter’s business in UK writing off the tax liabilities in her daughter’s name. But this was merely a decoy to meet her daughter. Her daughter Anupama files a criminal case against her mother in the UK. When the solicitors meet, Shakuntala drops a bombshell that her actions were mainly triggered by the need to meet her daughter once. It was never about money in any case.
The reconciliation between the mother and daughter is worth watching and this is one scene that shows how Vidya Balan is a powerhouse of talent. Sania Malhotra is not too far behind and her performance in this scene is mind blowing too. Malhotra delivers a fantastic performance as the daughter, who fails to understand her mother due to the aura associated with her, but is overcome with guilt when she realizes how unfair she was to her mother. The only sour note is Malhotra going ballistic at times when frustration with her mother’s dominance subsumes her.
The movie ends on a positive note and celebrates the triumph of Shakuntala Devi as a feminist who questions age-old conventions with her brutal honesty. The emotions between the mother and the daughter prove to be the crowning glory of the film – there are no pretenses, no dramas … the relationship is so real…so unlike the typical run-of-the-mill Bollywood movies where the mothers are shown as way too perfect and idealistic.
As we vicariously experience the life and times of a mathematical genius Shakuntala Devi and how her professional successes were achieved at the cost of sacrificing personal happiness.. you end up marveling the feisty woman who epitomized courage, perseverance and determination. Yet, it is her role as a mother that stupefies you and hits you hard…
Costume designer Niharika Basin has done a great job. Music compositions by Sachin-Jigar and Karan Kulkari are average. It is to the credit of the brilliant direction of Anu Menon that the supporting cast does a fabulous job. Sania Malhotra and Amit Sadh portray great screen chemistry. Jisshu Sengupta as Shakuntala Devi’s estranged husband Paritosh Banerjee delivers a restrained performance. But finally one has to admit that it is a Vidya Balan film all the way – she ably carries the film on her shoulders bringing to life the story of the formidable and indefatigable Shakuntala Devi.