How do you play an early 20th century woman who was intelligent but illiterate? Indian-American actress Devika Bhise figures
This is not New York-based Indian actress Devika Bhise’s first brush with legendary mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. When she was a student at Johns Hopkins University in 2010, she acted in a play based on the book, The Man Who Knew Infinity by Robert Kanigel.
Devika Bhise as Janaki and Dev Patel as Srinivasa Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity
Last year, after a screen test and many rounds of meetings, Bhise once again landed the opportunity to enact a character from the book. This time, she’d play Ramanujan’s wife Janakiammal, opposite Dev Patel, in Matthew Brown’s movie of the same name which premiered at last year’s Toronto Film Festival. "The play took certain creative liberties. It created characters that represented the ghosts of dead mathematicians and a goddess, whom I played. As an Indian, I had a general understanding of who Ramanujan was, but it wasn’t until I acted in the play that I had a full understanding of his life and work," says the 25-year-old, who is busy promoting the movie in America.
Daughter of famed Bharatnatyam dancer, Swati Bhise, Devika has lived in New York but continues to maintain ties with her roots. She spends two months of each year in Chennai. Her training in Bharatnatyam, she says, has helped hone her acting skills. "Abhinaya, or story telling through facial expressions and gesture, is an extremely important part of Bharatanatyam. I think the more styles of training you try, the more nuanced and complex your performance becomes. The ancient art form’s understanding of the rasas, or emotions, always provides me a solid base for how I approach scenes. I then pick and choose parts of my western training I can add on," she says over the phone from New York.
Despite her ‘Indianness’, Bhise has struggled with landing roles in Hollywood. "In my experience, according to Hollywood, I don’t look ‘Indian’ enough for most roles I have auditioned for, although I am 100 per cent Indian. After this movie though, I am looking forward to playing a diverse range of characters, not just Indians."
In The Man Who Knew Infinity though, she is as Indian as they come. Ramanujam’s wife was illiterate and married at the age of 10. The challenge for Bhise lay in portraying Janaki as an intelligent woman despite her background. "Not understanding the technicalities of mathematics did not hinder her from realising that her husband was a genius who would accomplish great things, and that this would require her to make a sacrifice so that he could chase his dreams. She understood the passion he had for mathematics, similar to that of an artist, even if she herself could not read, write, or solve equations," she says. To match mannerisms of a Tamilian Brahmin Iyengar girl from the early 20th Century, she relied once again on Bharatanatyam.
Next up for Bhise is Shambhala, a survival drama about a man (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), who finds himself injured after a plane crash in Pakistan with no memory of his life. "A series of flashbacks reveal the backstory, in which I play Tamara, a precocious college student, someone who plays an important part in how the film culminates," she shares. Before she signs off, she says — like they all do — that Bollywood is on her agenda. "I am keen to find a film I am excited about!"