Shakuntala Devi Hindi Movie Review

Feature Film | Biopic | 2h 7min
Vidya Balan is appropriate for the role of Shakuntala Devi, and she gets the essence of this real-life mathematical genius. But the inherent strength of Anu Menon's film is also its main weakness: the conflicts and resolutions are by the numbers, just like the math riddles that Devi solves.
Aug 1, 2020 By Sreejith Mullappilly

Amazon Prime's new film 'Shakuntala Devi' is based on the namesake mathematician who entered The Guinness Book of World Records through her sheer brilliance at number crunching. Her ability to calculate complex numbers all in the mind earned her the nickname, 'The Human Computer'. Directed by Anu Menon, the film stars Vidya Balan as Shakuntala Devi, and it chronicles the topsy-turvy life of the titular character.

Devi's love for the numbers is at odds with her basic relationships in life. This fact is established right at the start, where we see Anupama sue her mother for trying to deprive her of her property rights. The movie then flashes back to the childhood of Devi in Bangalore - her rise to stardom even without primary education starts here. Mathematics may be the most difficult subject, but it is child's play even for the young Devi. Everyone who encompasses her life is startled by her ability to solve complicated mathematical riddles at the blink of an eye.

Most geniuses are aloof people who spend their whole life away from the public. Conversely, Devi likes to dress up and party hard, plus she is quick-witted and has a larger-than-life persona. Vidya Balan is appropriate for the role, and she gets the essence of the character. But the inherent strength of the movie is also its main weakness: the conflicts and resolutions are by the numbers, just like the math riddles that Devi solves. Whatever attempt of the makers to delve deeper into the mind of this math wizard/person only skims the surface.

Albert Einstein's brain was studied many times, but experts found little to substantiate why he was a genius. There is a scene in Menon's film where Devi subjects herself to brain tests, only to learn from medical professionals that her brain is just as normal as anyone else's. The issue with this portion is that it does not add anything new to our little understanding of the genius she was. It is like saying Don Bradman averages close to 100 supposedly because his eyesight was better and he picked up the length of the ball faster than others. Sure, Devi's mind worked faster, but the movie devotes too much time admiring and understanding her genius while not intriguing us with anything revelatory.

Then there are the parts that talk about her complicated relationships, first with her husband Paritosh Banerji (Jisshu Sengupta) and then her daughter Anupama (Saniya Malhotra). Even in these portions, the movie follows a rigid rulebook, with clearly defined characters, conflicts and resolutions. Maybe some of this is appropriate because maths itself works by the numbers.

Each dramatic moment in Menon's movie seems so staged up and artificial. Even some of the dialogues seem too cinematic for a biopic. I scoffed when one of the younger Banerji's lines borrow from the famous dialogue in Amitabh Bachan's 1978 film 'Don'. It goes like this, "Shakuntala ko samajhna mushkil hi nahi namumkin hai" (It is not just difficult to understand Shakuntala but it is impossible).

I like Saniya Malhotra for she is young, peppy and seems uninhibited in front of the camera. Saniya holds her own opposite a seasoned performer like Vidya Balan, but she is also too raw to make their relationship work the magic. What works is Balan's unmistakable presence as Devi. This is a woman who finds maths even in the most mundane things, like her new house number for instance. Much like she did in last year's Mission Mangal, Balan brings a genuine feeling and passion that befits the real-life figure. And, even when the film borders on being just another soap opera, there are pleasures to be had in watching a true thespian at work.

Sreejith Mullappilly