Shakuntala Devi. The mathematical prodigy from India, who was once hailed as the human-computer, as she beat the computer hands down, pointing out its mistake. There’s hardly any graduate-level student in India who has not solved a ‘Shakuntala Devi’ numerical problems and puzzles book, for the preparation of a competitive examination. The puzzle books were fun to solve and the lack of Wikipedia driven source material made us in awe of the woman who conceptualised these books. To be honest, my idea of Shakuntala Devi, was her small bio, which often appeared on the last page or the back cover of the book. I knew her as the human-computer, who calculated cube roots of 10 digit numbers in 10 secs and did multiplications of 13 digit numbers under 30 secs. What I didn’t know, was that behind this mathematical prodigy, was the story of a struggling mother and a wife, who chose her passion over her family. Anu Menon’s film ‘Shakuntala Devi’ attempts to tell this lesser-known side of this women, who went on to feature in the Guinness Book Of World Records.

The movie describes the formative years of Shakuntala Devi’s life, in a non-linear form of narrative. Switching between her adolescence, youth, married and later stages of life, it primarily shows Shakuntala Devi from the eyes of her daughter, Ms Anupama Banerjee. The movie puts emphasis on the dynamics of the interpersonal relationships that Shakuntala Devi had with her family members. It begins with her parents, where she belittles her mother for being submissive to her father. Later in her life, the table turns as her daughter perceives her become a control freak, selfish woman. Even Paritosh Banerjee, the man Shakuntala Devi gets married to, has a tough time living with this woman, who terribly misses her days of world tours and being engrossed in mathematics. Shakuntala Devi chooses her career, her ambition over her family. The movie also portrays her in a negative light as she’s shown as a cunning woman, who lies about her husband’s sexuality in her book. Interestingly, the film shows the ambition of a woman, eventually becoming her nemesis in life. 

Vidya Balan does a terrific job as Shakuntala Devi. She exudes confidence while performing a challenging role of a woman, who has been celebrated by the whole world but had to pay the ultimate price for the same. She switches between accents, speaks with a nasal twang and picks up little mannerisms of an old lady. Her performance peaks up especially as a vindictive woman, who wants to remain unbeaten in life, be it getting back at a lover by shooting his ear off or later in her life, wanting her daughter back in her life, at any cost. Sanya Malhotra is wonderful as her daughter Anupama. Jisshu Sengupta and Amit Sadh, the two men in their lives, play their respective roles in a subdued manner, countering these two fiery women. Rest of the cast performs admirably, especially Sheeba Chaddha, Luca Calvani and Prakash Belawadi. 

But not everything seems well with the film. In order to show the friction between the mother-daughter duo, the pace of the tale takes a back seat. Though it’s crisply edited and kept within a run time of 2 hours 7 minutes, the film still feels uneven, perhaps for the non-linear narrative. As a viewer, it becomes a tad difficult to perceive this film as an underdog story or the story of a famous personality’s tryst with fame, in exchange of her soul to the devil, metaphorically speaking. Moreover, the film never really focusses on how Shakuntala Devi became a mathematical prodigy. It’s shown in a rather humorous way, attributing it as a god gifted talent which can not be comprehended by science. Overall the film is a good watch, due to Vidya’s splendid performance as Shakuntala Devi.

‘Shakuntala Devi’ now streaming worldwide on Amazon Prime.


The Cinemawala Rating: 3/5

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