Giving the 23rd root of a 201 digit number took 50 seconds, getting her equation with her daughter right took 30 years. She beat a computer back in the 70s in coming up with the answer quicker to that mind-boggling question, and though the computers of that era seem quaint by today's standards, the question of man (or woman in this case) vs machine is as relevant today. In the world of AI, getting an answer to any seemingly complex question seems within reach of Google or Alexa or Siri, but the simplest of human emotions and warmth that even a baby possesses, is out of their reach. Humans and their egos, their idiosyncrasies, their emotional baggage and the complexity of their interpersonal relationships cannot be boiled down to a simple formula, or a solution to a quadratic equation, tied up neatly in a bow. To paraphrase Thakur Baldev Singh's dialogue from Sholay - "Sikkey aur insaan mein shaayad yahi fark hai" - computers, even human computer as she was called, and humans are different.
Shakuntala Devi, starring Vidya Balan as the mathematical genius, had its worldwide release on Amazon Prime on Friday. Starting with her daughter Anupama Banerji (Sanya Malhotra from Dangal (2016) and Badhaai Ho (2018), which was reviewed here) walking into a lawyer's office in London in 2001, the action then shifts to 1934 Bangalore and to Shakuntala's childhood. Her precocious and preternatural math ability is used by her father (the ubiquitous South Indian stand-in in Hindi movies, Prakash Belawadi who has appeared in Madras Cafe (2013) as a Tamilian, Talvar (2015) and Airlift (2016) as a Malayali and here as his real life native self, a Kannadiga) to treat her as a money-making show pony. That upbringing, of being an itinerant permanently on the road, with no formal education, and making money for others, informs her later outlook on life of being fiercely independent and iconoclastic. From 1955 when she arrives in London and starts wowing the world with her feats, there are a series of vignettes of her showcasing her talents all over the world. The sequences, though thrilling mathematically, have a banal sameness to them in terms of a ridiculously complex question, a blithely rattled off answer, followed by wondrous applause. Following her marriage to IAS officer Paritosh Banerji (Bengali actor Jisshu Sengupta, Barfi (2012) and Mardaani (2014) and acted as a Bengali in both), she gives birth to her daughter in 1970. From then on, the movie shuttles back and forth in time between their joint and separate lives over the decades, which includes Anupama getting married to Ajay (Amit Sadh from Kai Po Che! (2013), Sultan (2015), playing supportive husband).
This Shakuntala Devi (running time 2 hr 7 min) is by no means a fawning biopic glossing over the imperfections of its subject, as many, but not I (my first review which I did on Whatsapp here), had suggested Sanju (2018) was. There is a willingness to show her struggles with work-life balance, what does being a non-perfect mother mean, and her devil may care attitude about societal norms and expectations, that don't put her on a pedestal. Bollywood Nirupa Roy she certainly wasn't and thankfully isn't portrayed that way. Vidya Balan is the perfect vehicle to play her, showcasing both the feisty joie de vivre and the existential angst. It's been 15 years since she burst on the scene with Parineeta (2005). She then honed her craft with Lage Raho Munna Bhai (2006), Bhool Bhulaiyya (2007) and Ishqiya (2010). But it is from Dirty Picture (2011) onward that she has grown as an actress from strength to strength, being able to helm movies in her own right, be it Kahaani (2012) to Tumhari Sulu (2017) to Mission Mangal (2019), reviewed here, where she held her own in a very capable ensemble. There is a joy and confidence to her acting that is infectious and contagious to the viewing audience that pretenders like the certifiably insane Kangana Ranaut (her recent interview with the everything that is wrong with Indian news media poster boy master of high-pitched sleaze Arnab Goswami is a C-grade train wreck of a movie on steroids) can only dream of. Taapsee Pannu, from the current crop, is the one who comes closest to Vidya in terms of ability and sparking joy.
The climax is a little filmi and contrived, and a bit incongruous with the ethos of the movie till that point. But that's a minor quibble in a biopic movie that doesn't pull its punches or deify its subject or tries to make her a perfect square.
August 2, 2020