*ing: Vidya Balan
Obviously there was much more to Shakuntala Devi than her being a human computer, superhuman with numbers. If one were to go the Roxanne Gay way, you could call her the bad feminist.
She did all that was considered harakiri in her day and age and she also did what was considered genius. She shed her parents, she hated her father, she refused to keep in touch with them, she ate, drank and swirled in swish company in old-time London where she was something of a curio from snake-charmers’ land, she had failed affairs, relationships, heartbreaks and what not.
But nothing kept her down. Shakuntala Devi had searing views about womanhood and even homosexuality. She questioned set norms, fought for the rights of women, and was ever unwilling to fit into a traditional woman’s role of being an unquestioning giver.
She knew how to play to the gallery. She knew how to showcase and earn from her command over mind boggling numbers. She had worked out the math of her life — she wanted to and lived under the limelight for years, giving up even the closest of relationships for her demanding multinational career.
All this is and more is nuanced in the film Shakuntala Devi which comes to you from her daughter’s perspective, a daughter who she first left with her husband as she travelled the world and then snatched her from him because the first word she said was papa and not mamma. She then took her on her whirlwind, something the little girl did not want, craving for her father who lived in Kolkata. Ultimately, it was her estrangement with her daughter that melted her from being just a brilliant mathematician on a singular track of being with the algebra at all costs to being a mathematician as well as a mother.
The film, helmed by Vidya Balan, captures the known and unknown moments of this super woman’s life. However, the constant high, the cutting humour, the fierce views, the burning ambition and the “man kabhi nahi haartee” mindset keeps the movie at an unnatural crescendo, making the viewers a little sceptical of true characterisation of this legend who passed away in Bengaluru in 2013.
Balan as Shakuntala keeps this high going throughout the film which is a biopic that took its time coming. The film and its story are engaging and you grudgingly applaud the Shakuntala’s undying spirit, if that is, you are able to step out of your years of conditioning and look at her often seemingly unreasonable behaviour as a point of view she held on it.
The best thing about the movie is that it tells you much more than Shakuntala Devi’s much celebrated mathematician side. It gives you an insight into her personal life and what she really was, a strong, independent, unapologetic feminist. And Balan makes you give the genius a standing ovation. A failed mother? A selfish wife? A numbers queen? Whatever tags you may give her, the overpowering one should be this: What a woman!!