Shakuntala Devi is an emotional, bittersweet ride, at times operatic but mostly spirited; one that holds its verve while enthralling you throughout.
Well, I would start with a healthy disclaimer about the film. Shun all your expectations before entering its world. If you are expecting an answer to the question ‘how does she do it?’, you might not be able to find it here.
‘Mothers and daughters’, exclaims an entire room full of men, in the film Shakuntala Devi. And that is exactly what the film is about. Making a pivotal human relationship the centre point of the film, director Anu Menon (who, in fact, worked in close collaboration with Devi’s daughter Anupama Bannerjee) crafts her story by investigating the personal trials and tribulations that a public personality such as Shakuntala Devi had to face.
This supposed biopic of the Guinness World Record Holder, also known as ‘The Human Computer’, Mrs Shakuntala Devi, is primarily a family drama. Yet, it’s an enjoyable, bittersweet ride if you like a tearjerking emotional mother and daughter story. This uniquely structured coming-of-age film adopts a non-linear approach, is well paced, with songs that aid the narrative, all the while focusing primarily on the personal, than the professional.
Most importantly, it disrupts expectations. Without being biographical in style, it tells the story in a more vulnerable as well as spirited fashion.
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Devi says in the film, that she never loses, she always wins. Well, we can not disagree to that. But what the film does to that spirit is, that it caricaturises the moments that form the highlights of her professional life and her success as a genius mathematician. While navigating the many ambiguities of her personal as well as professional life, the dynamics of her equation with her daughter and husband, the character of Devi displays vanity and vulnerability with least modesty.
The many questions of feminism, racism and several other isms come to the fore through the film, and it can easily come across as a concocted attempt at showing a lot in a limited time frame of two hours.
While all of the aforementioned things can easily be considered as the film’s drawbacks, what the film succeeds at is presenting to us a completely unadulterated image of our heroine, who is not devoid of flaws, who makes mistakes and owns them unabashedly. The film’s uniqueness and strength lies in its unconventional protagonist. Actor Vidya Balan shines throughout the length of the film, in moments of hope and despair alike, in fleets of success and fame, and in deep-seated instances of damage and hurt. She owns the film in the true sense of the term. Sanya Malhotra fell a tad bit short in the more intense moments because I’ve seen her do better than this. Or was it just me?
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It’s interesting to note that while the film attempts to subvert patriarchy and rise above the petty concerns of the male-dominated society, it also presents alternate feminisms. Through the character of the daughter of a supremely talented mathematics master, who aims for the ordinary and wishes for simple joys in life, we get to see the other side of feminism. While the film as a whole deals with the differential treatment of men and women in the society, it also deals with the brand of feminism that a woman might assume is final, and provides an alternate amicable solution to the conflict arising at that particular avenue. There, I summarised it for you without any spoilers!
The film essentially deals with two inherent personas that our heroine, Shakuntala Devi possesses; that of the mathematician and that of the mother. While the mathematician takes a backseat at times, with her achievements and her aspirations, both being sidelined in the plot as well as the narrative; the mother occupies the forefront of things. The figure of the mother right from the start drives the narrative forward; in how Shakuntala’s mother prophesices that she will be tormented by her daughter, as these equations are cyclical.
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Performances are delivered with conviction and emotionality sans any contrivances. That is why the film works on a larger level — as a biopic embedded with elements of drama. Shakuntala Devi also interestingly presents to us different shades of feminism, different versions of the idea of dreaming and different points of entry into the psyche of our hero, who becomes a ‘badi aurat‘ through her sheer dedication.
Overall, you’re sure to enjoy the film if you delve into the vision of the creator without any pre-conceived notions. Menon, who gave us the very charming, poignant and introspective Waiting (2016) starring Naseeruddin Shah and Kalki Koechlin does a decent job here too. She portrays the protagonist’s eccentricities with vigour and colour. But she navigates her darknesses with the same finesse and sensitivity. As the curtains rise, we see what is truly a remarkable attempt at portraying the ordinariness of the seemingly extraordinary.
Living differently, like a wanderer, Devi, in her moments of fame and in those of disillusionment, shows us the true meaning that arises out of the dichotomous roles and relationships inherent in the word ‘woman’.
Somewhere in the film, we hear Paritosh describe her with, “To love Shakuntala is to let her be.” I couldn’t find anything more apt to sum her up.
By Sanghmitra Jethwani
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