The Vidya Balan-starrer opts for a visual tone that matches the high octane personality of the late mathematician, but becomes an over-the-top cliché
Shakuntala Devi had a famously high octane personality — full of laughter, quirk, impudence and wit. She turned a conventionally drab skill of nimble calculations into a stage performance and added oodles of drama and oomph to it. Anu Menon’s biopic on the late mathematical genius takes the essence of her public persona to construct an upbeat, bright and loud tone for the film, while also revealing the not-so-positive and lesser-known aspects of her private life, using the same audio-visual aesthetic. This contradiction is a captivating approach, but there’s a thin line between paying homage to the vibrancy of a personality and being an over-the-top cliché. Shakuntala Devi keeps oscillating between the two.
To make numbers look scintillating, the film uses a visual element of flying digits on the screen. Some appear as if they are sketched on a blackboard, while others are either levitating on-screen or revolving in a circle. The purpose of this cartoon-like visual aid is to make numbers look attractive, much in sync with Devi’s lifelong efforts. But unlike Devi’s innate charm and sass, the visual gimmick in the film symbolises a desperate attempt to appear upbeat and positive. Menon opts for an easy way out instead of doing the hard work of eliciting the same emotions through characterisation.
The actors perform comically in sync with the film’s exaggerated tone, especially all the Caucasian actors in London during the flashbacks to the ’50s, when Devi landed in England to make a living. Vidya Balan maintains the same high energy but it’s apt considering she plays Devi, who was known for her vibrancy. Balan, who has previously essayed real-life personalities like Silk Smitha, has the ability to smoothly transition between age and appearances, but even she can’t salvage a rather mawkish finale to the film.
- Director: Anu Menon
- Runtime: 127 minutes
- Cast: Vidya Balan, Jisshu Sengupta, Sanya Malhotra, Amit Sadh, Prakash Belawadi
- Storyline: Shakuntala Devi struggles to balance her family life with her desire to travel the world and perform her astounding mathematical skills to a global audience.
The upside of all the over-the-treatment is that the film has no dearth of joy. There’s a lot of fun to be had, especially when Balan is bringing out Devi’s temerity and an innate sense of defiance. Her stance against patriarchy is enjoyed rather than beatified, and that only adds to the admiration one feels towards the mathematical genius, who was also a prolific writer, astrologer and politician.
An audience watches a biopic not so much to witness a reenactment of what we already know about a public figure, but what happens when the curtains drop. Shakuntala Devi explores the mathematician’s relationship with her daughter, parents and husband, and illustrates how the three are closely linked to each other.
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While her childhood both haunts and feeds into her success, she inadvertently repeats history with her daughter, Anupama Banerji (Sanya Malhotra). The mother-daughter relationship is the focal point of the film, demonstrating how success and wealth may not guarantee a happy childhood, and how childhood memories are often adjusted, embellished and altered when we grow up. The film makes this rather pertinent point, and is reflective of the unfettered access given by Anupama to the filmmaker.
Devi’s relationship with her husband, Paritosh Banerji (Jisshu Sengupta), on the other hand, is rushed and his sexuality is only used fleetingly in parts as instances that agitate Anupama. While exploring the mother-daughter relationship, the film goes back and forth between the ’90s and previous decades, but towards the end, the structure gets tiresome. There is no space for finer details in this film — everything is either too on-the-nose or exaggerated.
There’s so much to Devi’s life and the film doesn’t try to cramp in everything but follows a thematic thread of ‘you can’t have it all’. The film is also fairly critical of Devi as a mother and wife, which — contrary to its glossy and bright texture — is quite refreshing to see in a biopic, which can be an easy trap for glorification. It’s certainly a film that makes you want to know more about Devi, after seeing her in all her larger-than-life splendour, but the desire, ultimately, is more to do with what the film leaves out, rather than what is opts to include.
Shakuntala Devi is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video