Shakuntala Devi

Vidya Balan as Shakuntala Devi

Director: Anu Menon
Cast: Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Amit Sadh, Jisshu Sengupta
Released on: July 31, 2020
Release platform: Amazon Prime Video
IMDB rating: 6.3/10
My rating: 3.5/5

Background: A woman who was once told that if she wants to be big in life, the world will call her “bada aadmi” (successful man) because no one has ever heard of any “badi aurat” (successful woman) in the 1930s, this lady was always ‘herself’ — fierce, unapologetic, and no cry-baby in distress and with that she promised herself to become a “badi aurat” one day. Today we (and for many more centuries to come) know her as the ‘Human Computer’ — Shakuntala Devi, a genius mathematician, astrologer, author of many amazing books and a politician (she contested the Lok Sabha elections against Indira Gandhi from Medak) is played by the very confident and amazingly talented Vidya Balan in this beautiful biopic.

From playing a fearless, beautiful actor Silk in The Dirty Picture (2011), a working independent talented housewife Sulu in Tumhari Sulu (2017) to a brilliant scientist in Mission Mangal (2019), Vidya Balan has come a long way, encouraging women to chase their dreams without thinking about societal stigmas. Now she is back with her never-ending support to women empowerment with her well-played role of Shakuntala Devi, India’s first woman mathematician to make it to the Guinness Book of World Records for her calculation speed and mental solving skills.

Sanya Malhotra, known for Badhai Ho (2018), Dangal (2018), Photograph (2019) plays Shakuntala’s daughter, Anupama (Anu); confident as always, she is very crisp in her dialogue delivery this time.

The supporting cast is sure a cherry on this cake because of the well-known but less appreciated talent of Amit Sadh in the role of Anu’s husband. He has proved his mettle in Kai Po Che (2013), Sultan (2016), Breathe (Amazon Prime web series 2018 and 2020) and Avrodh (Sony Liv 2020).

Vidya Balan with her on-screen daughter played by Sanya Malhotra

Storyline: Told through the lens of her stressed relationship with her daughter Anu, the film highlights the very different struggles and aspirations of Shakuntala Devi since childhood. Anupama started to hate her mother from the time she realised that Devi was so dominating and controlling that she even had plans for Anu’s post-wedding life, insisting Anu and her husband to live with her.

To some extent, Anu’s allegations proved correct on different milestones throughout the journey of Shakuntala Devi’s childhood, rising popularity, never-ending stage shows, love life, travelling schedules, married life and parenthood. Her tight schedule even made her distant from her newborn daughter and divorce her husband, Paritosh Banerji (Jisshu Sengupta).

Her pride, selfishness, fame and game of numbers somewhat overshadowed her family responsibilities as a mother, wife and child, she abandoned her parents and ran to London to start a new life, divorced her charming Calcutta-based, bureaucratic husband to take full custody of the daughter and bereft her of a normal childhood as well.

The film lets down its viewers only by its over-dramatization of some events and clingy scenes that instantly disconnects it from being a biopic on a woman who was not just a genius but also ahead of her time. After all, it is Bollywood. There is a scene in the beginning where Shakuntala Devi says, “We Indians love drama”; so much (drama) that the two-hour long film seems exhausting and inconsistent in the second half. The screenplay by Menon and Nayanika Mahtani moves back and forth over the years like a highlights reel of Devi’s life.

I would have appreciated seeing a bit more of the Maths genius being built up. The film only briefly touches on parts of Shakuntala Devi’s life, like her political ambition and why she wrote a book on homosexuality.

Anu Menon’s direction and co-scripting with Nayanika Mahtani and Ishita Moitra very briefly gives us a hint of these two parts (writer and politician) of Shakuntala’s real life, but sadly, doesn’t shed much light on it, which for me was a big let-down.

But at the end of the day what matters is that Shakuntala Devi was an extraordinary woman who insisted on living life on her own terms; a nimble-witted humorous lady always full of life, for whom age was just a number and she loved numbers.

Were the researchers and psychologists, after running tests on her brain for her calculation capacity and speed, able to find out how she did that? Find out yourself in this must-watch biopic of India’s Human Computer.