Maths v/s Motherhood:
Even a film that has dialogue studded with feminist pronouncements like “Why do men want women to need them?” or “Why be normal when I can be amazing?” cannot help being judgmental about a woman who puts her own ambition over the more mundane joys of motherhood that are always sold more aggressively to women.
Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi is not a straight biopic or tribute to the remarkable achiever, a large part of the story is told from the point of view of her whiny daughter, Anupama (Sanya Malhotra, made to play her as a one-note nag), who wants a “normal” life instead of travelling the world with her mother and meeting celebrities. Relentlessly guilt-tripped by Anupama, she even gives up her high-flying career, but the daughter remains surly. In the most cringe-worthy scene of the film, Shakuntala Devi actually loses her magic with numbers when she is estranged from her daughter.
While it is portraying Shakuntala Devi’s rise to fame through her incredible mathematical gift, her larger than life persona, her courage and zest for life, the film is very watchable. Along with being a “human computer,” she was also a writer, astrologer, aspiring politician (she stood for elections against Indira Gandhi and lost), early supporter of homosexuality (she wrote a book titled The World of Homosexuals); the film suggests that she lied about her husband (Jisshu Sengupta) being gay to promote the book, hinting at her unabashed opportunism.
As a child, when she displayed ability to do rapid mathematical calculations, her father dragged her around to perform and got so greedy for her earnings that he let his older daughter die without treatment. As soon as she was able to, Shakuntala escaped from her father’s clutches and left for London—an episode from her life that needed more exploration in the film. In London, she has a Spanish boyfriend Javier (Luca Calvani), who helps her with her English accent and her stage shows, then disappears without a trace when his work is done.
Her disputes with her daughter and her husband (Amit Sadh) is actually the least interesting part of Shakuntala Devi’s life. Her relationship with her supportive husband is also rushed through.
There are videos of the real Shakuntala Devi existing, and Vidya Balan, who doesn’t resemble her, manages to capture her spirit of the woman—her open laughter, her zest for life, her confidence, her voice and accent. The film is not interested in her struggles, hurdles in her rise to fame, any moments of quiet reflection. (In her latter years, one remembers her face staring out of newspaper ads, advertising her astrological skills.)
Maybe a two-hour film is not enough for the extraordinary journey of Shakuntala Devi, a series might do her better justice. It is unarguably important that that stories of female achievers need to be told, so with all its flaws, Shakuntala Devi is a good addition to the growing list.