Director: Anu Menon
Cast: Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Jisshu Sengupta, Amit Sadh
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video
I find biopics boring to watch. Especially the ‘all-hail protagonist’ types and the ones made to clean-up a public figure’s image. Rarely do we get to see a complex or flawed character presented as he/she is/was. Amazon Prime Video’s latest original film Shakuntala Devi rids this biopic tag upfront with a disclaimer that it is a story told through the perspective of Shakuntala Devi’s daughter Anupama ‘Anu’ Banerji.
The ever so brilliant Vidya Balan plays Shakuntala Devi, one of the world’s renowned Mathematicians who was called ‘Human Computer’. We see an 8-year-old Shakuntala in 1934 Bangalore solving a tough Math problem ‘just like that’. Nobody knows how she does it then nor later when doctors examine her after she has already become world famous. She solves difficult math problems which an average person can only attempt to read. Hell, even the super computer during that time failed in comparison with genius woman.
Watch the trailer of Shakuntala Devi:
Although told through her daughter’s perspective, this is Shakuntala Devi’s story and Vidya Balan’s picture. And Balan is effortlessly brilliant. Is there ever a dull moment when this actress graces the screen? I don’t think so. Just like her roles in the brave The Dirty Picture, quirky Ishqiya, lovely Tumhari Sulu, and a Bollywoodized Mission Mangal (she was the only good thing about that film) she lets her femininity and grace trump every gender talk (taunted by women and men alike). As far as I recollect, throughout her film career Balan has never played a character who’s making her mark in this male dominated world by doing nothing else but imitating men. In Shakuntala Devi, she reiterates out loud, “Main bada aadmi kyun banu? Main badi aurat banungi.”
Shakuntala Devi is undoubtedly a stellar role to have in your filmography. And Balan gives that role the dignity and charm that it needed. She uses the term ‘Vidya kasam’ (meaning I swear on my knowledge) when she has to swear onto something. It’s smart word play on the actor’s real name. She is ably supported by Sanya Malhotra (Dangal, more importantly Pataakha) as Shakuntala Devi’s daughter Anu. Vidya and Sanya look like they’re real mother and daughter. It adds more value to their chemistry. Jisshu Sengupta and Amit Sadh play their supportive husbands’ roles sincerely.
The dialogue by Ishita Moitra is crisp. The impact of modern day women empowerment movement on dialogue is evident. It works well for the most part but in some scenes set in 1940s, 50s and so on the lines seem a little force fed. The screenplay by Anu Menon and Nayanika Mahtani takes off to a flying start but gets a little jaded in the last 30 minutes of the film. Cinematography by Keiko Nakahara is the only but major turnoff of the film. This is not a film you’d watch out for sound design or background score so these parameters don’t really affect your movie watching experience. The recreated world of yesteryears is decent enough.
The story of Shakuntala Devi, the film, comprises almost seven decades – often switching back and forth. This woman teaches us how to chase our dreams and live guilt-free. However, she holds almost a lifelong grudge against her parents, especially her mother. She’s not game for the idea of spending her life with just one man. She even asks this question to her daughter. But then she once chose to shift to Calcutta, have a family and raise a child.
We, the people, can ‘live’ our lives with limitless possibilities but we often choose to ‘spend’ our lives within the standard templates. Often these templates have gender roles. The debate on which is the hot topic of today’s times. Every argument on ‘he did – she did’ will have a counter argument. If SHE says ‘Whole life with just one man?’ and if HE says ‘Whole life with just one woman?’ will have as many perceptions and responses (about the character) as there are individuals. But does it, rather should it really matter? Because a story is about an individual’s journey and every story has a context which you can’t fix into a generic template.
Life is all about perspectives. Shakuntala Devi is a story of a mother told through her daughter’s perspective. And it’s a story well told. A delightful film, Vidya kasam!