Shakuntala Devi Movie Review: Viva da loca Vidya!

Updated: 01 August, 2020 10:24 IST | Mayank Shekhar | Mumbai

Shakuntala Devi is almost entirely from the perspective of her daughter.

Vidya Balan in Shakuntala Devi
Vidya Balan in Shakuntala Devi

Shakuntala Devi
On: Amazon Prime Video
Director: Anu Menon
Cast: Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Jisshu Sengupta, Amit Sadh
Rating: Rating

There's a scene in this film involving a mother-in-law, and a young mom (Sanya Malhotra; such a sorted actor) chatting in the room, when the husband (Amit Sadh; on a roll, lately) pops in to check, "You guys were bitching about me, right?" "No, you're not that important," the women say. This, by the way, is the most direct nod I've seen to the Bechdel Test that establishes gender-neutrality in films/literature, by checking if there is a scene where two (or more) women talk to each other, about anything outside of a man!

So yeah, this is a feminist film. You won't find better, self-aware proof than the above! And while it's too early to form/sense a pattern, you could call Shakuntala Devi a very Vidya Balan kinda feminist film as well.

Wherein the supposed male leads are exceedingly considerate/giving/caring characters as well. Almost compensating for the fact that since the story is centred on the female lead, the only way they're gonna get any love from the audience is by showing extra love to the protagonist herself! And isn't that lovely.

Think Sanjay Kapoor in Mission Mangal (2019), Manav Kaul in Tumhari Sulu (2017), or Jisshu Sengupta here, who plays the eponymous character's husband. Shakuntala Devi, according to this script, falsely suggests in public that the man (her ex, by then) is homosexual. This, in order to sell her book on the same subject. He sits there like a gentleman, retaliating at no point.

Here's what that episode, although only cursorily touched upon, does to the film though. It occurs past what would have perhaps been the film's theatrical interval-point. Up until then, as an audience we know Shakuntala Devi as an arithmetic wizard, and I keep thinking in my head — so she can calculate square, cube, or square/cube roots of numbers faster than a machine. So frickin' what?

What is the actual application of such a talent in a world of scientific calculators, anyway? Nothing. I was gonna give up, really. As the novel conflicts in her personal life come to the fore is when you straighten your back up a bit, and take notice — making this a rare mainstream Hindi pic, with a better second half than the first!

Which is to take away nothing from the scintillating subject. Those who've walked through India in the '80s and '90s, from padhe-likhe middle-class homes (with extra emphasis on education, namely science and mathematics) have all had a bunch of Shakuntala Devi puzzle books in their shelves — chiefly bought over Wheeler's railway-station bookstore counters, to be solved over long train rides.

She was called the 'human computer' at the same time that Chacha Chaudhary's brain worked faster than a computer. Hers actually did. And we were basically obsessed with computers in the '80s/'90s, or what it could do to our lives — in hindsight, for a good reason.

Watch the trailer of Shakuntala Devi here:

That said, what does genius level IQ and a celebrity life derived from it do to those close? Don't know. Never thought of it. It appears neither did Shakuntala, who is self-driven alright, but could that not also border on being deeply selfish?

This film is almost entirely from the perspective of her daughter. It starts out as being from the POV of Shakuntala herself, and how her father took monetary advantage of her god-gifted skills, when she was a child. Which is actually true for so many talents pushed into the arts by parents, so they can live off the earnings!

But these portions are all too corny, even as the film commands your attention from the get go — at the mention of a daughter filing a criminal case of financial fraud against her own mother (that is Shakuntala), even before opening-credits roll. But that's in 2001. And then you move to 1934. And off to the '50s, then the '90s, and back to the '70s? You can tell this is a movie re-written/re-imagined, if not smartly rescued, at the editing stage. Although none of this is confusing, it's not always interesting.

So, yeah, while numbers/digits fly on the screen, much like in the John Nash biopic, A Beautiful Mind (2001), the film itself has little to do with math per se. Which is fine, since the last time I watched an Indian mathematician's biopic, with Dev Patel playing S Ramanujan (The Man Who Knew Infinity; 2015), it turned out to be the bummer of the century, from its casting alone.

This is a Vidya Balan film. And, yes, there is such a thing. You sense elements of a happy musical all through, a lightness of touch, and lots of smiles, from Balan herself, and hopefully from audiences too. It's a part she maxes by the end of it — almost growing into the role, before our eyes. Would I watch it for anyone else? Nope, as her characters swears quite a few times through the film, "Vidya kasam!"

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First Published: 01 August, 2020 07:01 IST

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