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Shakuntala Devi Made Me Wonder Why Women Cannot Be Both Ambitious And Good Mothers

Posted: August 16, 2020

While watching the movie Shakuntala Devi, I kept wondering why weren’t more women encouraged to be as ambitious and independent like her?

The movie, Shakuntala Devi is currently streaming on Amazon Prime. If you haven’t watched that yet, let me give you a warning, this narrative may have some spoilers. So go watch it as soon as you can and then, join me?

The movie does one thing very clearly, it does not make Shakuntala a Devi! It takes us back to Bangalore of 1930s where we learn about the story of a five-year-old prodigy. She can exceptionally solve complicated mathematical questions in a matter of seconds.

She is a woman who is independent and ambitious

Shakuntala Devi is a story about the woman made of transgressions. It is the story of her commitment to become a big woman despite the normative that there is always a big man. That a big woman isn’t even a thing that could be seen as a radical emotion by a five-year-old girl. She hated her mother for keeping quiet.

There’s a scene where she holds a rifle and shoots her lover. She blows his ear off. We can see how she doesn’t just hold it but exercise the function of a a weapon meant to be only a man’s business. The rebellious Shakuntala cuts off her ties with her lineage and starts performing her ‘maths’ as she would say. She does it in a very subversive attire by draping a sari and two pigtails, and later is epitomised the Human-Computer.

Well, it is more than just Shakuntala Devi’s story. It also focuses on the tensions that the mother-daughter share coming from the previous generation. Anu, the daughter of the great woman feels suffocated and starts hating her mother for asserting her decisions on her.

Why do men want women to need them?

We see, how Shakuntala who always exercised an agency of her own doesn’t let her daughter have it for herself. And all our major debates on feminism conclude at one simple point, maybe? Agency.

We also know that the movie is inspired by Shakuntala Devi’s story but it’s not biographical. Mostly because it’s narrated by her daughter and focuses more on their relationship, which wasn’t very sweet if you see.

Apart from the general counter-arguments that the movie poses to the paternalistic set up of society. Like why could a woman alone not move to London to gain autonomy? Why do men always want women to need them? And why do independent women, who abandon the limitations and laugh out loud, scare men?

The idea of motherhood here intrigued me

If I had to pick one major aspect of the movie, it shall be the idea of motherhood. The question of what should have Shakuntala’s mother have done to save Sharda, why she couldn’t speak up for her daughters?

Similarly, we see how in our society motherhood becomes an impediment for those women who wish to be anything more than ‘a mother’. I wonder think why people say, motherhood makes a woman complete? The pre-conceived notion about maternity also forces women to feel subconsciously incomplete without having a child.

We see that Shakuntala’s decision to raise a child limits her to the house and puts her in the conflict. It makes her choose between raising her daughter or following her career. We see that when Shakuntala chooses her career, she starts feeling left out. Especially when she finds out that the first word that her daughter said wasn’t normal, it wasn’t ‘maa’. Also, the movie tries to question the very rigid notions of ‘Maternal Instinct.’

A woman cannot be both – ambitious and a mother, can she?

All that her daughter expected was a normal life with a normal mother living in a normal house. But to this, we hear Shakuntala say, if she could be amazing, why does she need to be normal!

The expectations from a woman to raise her child shunning the careerist aspirations have been normalised. If a woman does her career, she’s pulled down from the pedestal and often villainised.

We see her husband as relatively a progressive man, but because Shakuntala was the storm, she couldn’t stay in one place. She also called her husband homosexual trying to normalise the taboo, well explaining that context is likely to create a digression.

When we try to actualise, what the movie had wanted to say, we see how sometimes women of an agency to fail to understand it. Also that a woman can’t have it all, if she desires too many things, she can’t unlike men.

Picture credits: Still from Amazon Prime’s Shakuntala Devi

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