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Film: Shakuntala Devi

Cast: Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Jisshu Sengupta

Directed by: Anu Menon

Duration: 2 hrs 5 mins

Rating: * * 1 / 2

For those who grew up in the ’80s, Shakuntala Devi’s name is quite familiar. She was known for her mathematical ingenuity and known as the ‘human computer’, even though there was no Google to verify that in those days. But the fact is, she could calculate cube roots, higher roots, and multiply ultra-long numbers at mind-boggling speeds.

Anu Menon’s (of Waiting fame) new film tells the story of the mathematical genius, who never had any formal education in the subject. The story is told from her daughter’s point of view with whom she had a rather troubled relationship, for most parts.

The problem with biopics is the overt and in your face dramatisation of the stories – in Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (2013), the protagonist suddenly sees a man on a horse chasing him, in the middle of a 400-metres Olympic race. Or like in Mary Kom (2014), where the famed boxer’s toddler is undergoing an operation, while she is fighting it out in the boxing ring. In Shakuntala Devi, she gets flashes of her fraught relationship with her mother and daughter, in the middle of a television show.

The film starts in an equally dramatic fashion – in London, Anu (Sanya Malhotra) says that she wants to sue her mother for destroying her financially. A rather grim-faced lawyer says: “Your mother could get a jail sentence.” In flashback, we are told how things got to this point.

In the 1930s in Bangalore, a father (Prakash Belawadi) discovers that his little daughter has a penchant for numbers and calculations and starts taking bookings for her to perform in front of crowds. The family relationship is rather troubled – she doesn’t get well along with her mother. “One day, your daughter will treat you the same way,” the mother says, giving us ample idea of the shape of things to come. To make matters worse, Shakuntala’s elder sister dies at a young age.

It was a tough life for her in that era, all the more as a woman, who was trying to make a mark for herself. She moves to London and climbs the ladder of success after some initial hiccups. She has a busy life and wants to live it on her terms.

The screenplay tells us all this in a very clinical and fairly predictive manner. Almost every scene and dialogue is a cue for what is coming up next. She finds the man (Jisshu Sengupta) she was looking for; he is supportive of her and supplements her busy lifestyle. But eventually, things take a turn for the worse when they have a kid – Shakuntala finds it difficult to juggle between the three M’s – motherhood, marriage, and mathematics. It is the latter then takes precedence taking a toll on the former two – life comes a full circle and her mother’s prophetic words come true.

She also branched out into astrology, politics and spoke in favour of homosexuality – all this gets a cursory mention – after all, this is “based on a true story seen through the eyes of a daughter” and that largely remains the focus of the film. As an emotional mother-daughter story, the film works, as the story of lady mathematician who came a long way, it flounders. It doesn’t hesitate to portray as a flawed lady and someone who may have made selfish choices along the way but the manner in which it builds up the conflict and opts for a dramatic resolution, is a cop out.

Vidya Balan is a fine actress and given the not so subtle nature of the screenplay, she has to be rather dramatic. In fact, the same applies to Sanya Malhotra’s performance as well.

Unlike Shakuntala Devi’s mathematics which was bang on target, this is a hit and a miss.

(‘Shakuntala Devi’ is streaming on Amazon Prime)