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Shakuntala Devi [Review]

“My mother has taken from me everything I loved,” Anu (Shakuntala’s daughter) tells and the movie cuts to 1934 Bangalore where, in the sepia glint, a 5 years old Indian girl in the ‘chotis’ (pigtails), casually does a computation comprising a 10-digit number. And then she does another& then another until the public is dumbstruck.

Shakuntala Devi is a 2020 Indian Hindi-language biographical comedy-drama film. The film features Vidya Balan as Shakuntala Devi, who was also recognized as the “human computer” along with equally stunning co-stars Jisshu Sengupta, Sanya Malhotra and Amit Sadh.

To youthful Shakuntala’s father (played by P. Belawari with a mixture of duplicity, characterized by a servile complaisance), having a mathematical master at house means a source of revenue. He instantly begins taking bookings for his daughter’s shows.

As Shakuntala turns into a “performer”, she starts resenting the reality that she doesn’t go to school, that her ‘ma’ never stands up for her, that though she earns for the house she has been deprived of an innocent childhood which she much deserved.

Soon she moves to London, wherein, a man, impressed with her genius, contemplates how her rudimentary style and broken English make people laugh and be dismissive of her mastery. He decides on providing her and her stage exhibits a makeover, to make them more intriguing, amusing, extravagant.

In her personal space too we get to see Shakuntala Devi’s alliances with her mother, father, husband and daughter, but all exchanges are whittled down to communicate nothing more than the timeline of her life: Missed having a girlhood. Shifted to London. Was prosperous. Then they came together. Got wedded. Loved. Singled out. Travelled the world with Anu. Quarrelled. Distanced.

Each one conveys a circumstance but extends little understanding. The viewpoint, if we can call it that, comes via Ms Balan as she waltzes in and out of rooms, tossing feminist vibes with lots of self-love over.

The film keeps time jumping between past and present, both on the personal and the professional fronts of Shakuntala’s life. We see that Shakuntala, the genius impresses the world, away from public commendations is familial dysfunction.

She’s called the “human computer” because she can do cube roots, give responses to sums in reverse, reel off the dates of all Sundays of any year within seconds. On the other hand, as far as her romantic life is concerned, men don’t stay because they don’t feel “needed”.

But Paritosh Banerjee (played by the wonderful Jisshu Sengupta) is a very practical and liberal man who doesn’t want her to change. They marry, have a child, and for a while, Shakuntala is just a mother and spouse. But the pull of the stage is too much. So she grabs little Anu and gets back to tour the world, but Anu misses her father, having a home, and begins to discern only her mother’s drawbacks. She fights and breaks free, but years later, when a grown-up Anu says she wants to marry the boy she adores, Ajay (Amit Sadh). Here, Shakuntala Devi disapproves, reciting the progression of her own life. Shakuntala prefers Anu to keep orbiting in a circle around her. Because otherwise, in her vacant home, there is no beholder of her intellect.

The film, written by Anu Menon, Nayanika Mathani and Ishita Moitra, treats us to the thrilling, impressive genius of Shakuntala Devi, but pretty soon it proceeds to view her only through the eyes of her daughter. The problem is not so much with the familial framing, but with the fact that it ends up monopolizing the story. As the film progresses, the frame gets rigid, and Shakuntala Devi’s playground shrinks.

It’d be terrific if this movie wouldn’t be contained within that one narrative or one point of view. There could’ve been more voices, more points of view.

What’s missing are minutes of seclusion with her. How did she educate herself for the Guinness Record? What did she study, when did she exercise, her tricks… How she progressed from playing with a 10-digit number to the 201-digit miracle. Etc

Shakuntala Devi the movie plays a lot with time, jumping between the past and present timelines. To make these changes easy on us, it gives us locations and times. But there’s a tackiness in the building of scenes which comes from using cinematic cliches instead of coming up with something maverick.

Vidya Balan has a bright temperament that crackles with an impressive inner cosmos. It’s difficult to pull off a character where the high-points are rattling off digits, continually.

The protagonist ages almost 50 years in the film as she goes through several phases of the life of a woman and is seen as youthful and elderly, boozer and sober, intellectual and excited, anxious and solitary, each one framed as a unique being.

With just sarees, earrings, hairstyles and a few accessories, costume designer Niharika Bhasin manages to create not just different looks but infuses them with a palpably different spirit — the rustic girl who arrives in London, the confident woman who falls in love and marries, the industrious, working mother with short hair, and the ageing, bespectacled lady who is solitary, unhappy, bitter, but wealthy.

It makes sense. That’s the fraction of Shakuntala Devi which baffled psychologists and scientists who ran examinations on her brain to figure out how she could do complicated estimations so fast. They couldn’t. It carried mystique then, and it carries mystique even now.

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