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Why Was Shankuntala Devi A Woman’s Predicament Instead Of The Story Of A Mathematical Genius?

Posted: August 5, 2020

Watching Shakuntala Devi left me with a lot of questions but mostly, I wondered what if it were a standalone movie exploring a mother-daughter relationship.

I remember when I entered standard four, beside the gigantic terrifying Maths textbook, there was a ‘Mental Mathematics’ book with a picture of Shakuntala Devi. As I began to do the exercises, I found this book to be a treasure trove of tricks or say smarter methods to calculate.

Knowing that the answer to a four-digit number multiplied by four will always be the number itself but backward was a superpower for a child like me. It was great for a child who was terrible at maths.

The movie trailer had me interested

Unfortunately, this was not the information highway era, so any keen interest outside the perimeter of school syllabi was quashed. And the absence of search engines/ internet thwarted the urge to gain more knowledge.

Years down the lane, maths lost relevance in my adult life and Shakuntala Devi faded away from memory. But watching the trailer of ‘Shakuntala Devi’ resurrected the want to know her story of becoming the ‘Human Computer’

Sadly, Shakuntala Devi is not a biopic in the true sense. The movie is the perception of Shakuntala Devi through the eyes of her daughter who brutally judges her only as a mother. And the filmmaker inserts the rider at the beginning itself, ‘Based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter, Anupama Banerji.

Anu Menon, the director, worked within the ambit of a misconstrued Shakuntala Devi. And her failures as a mother, in a tumultuous relationship with her husband and daughter, a troubled childhood and an eccentric persona.

The story is most centred around her relationship with her daughter

Therefore, it doesn’t become the Cinderella story of a hardworking girl, born in a small village in Southern India during the pre-Independence era. It doesn’t become the story of a woman facing the hardships and being rewarded by the fairy Godmother turning her into the ‘Human Computer.’ Undeniably, it is a heartbreaking story, thinking of a child accompanying her father on roadshows as a trapeze artist, earning money for her family.

Somehow, the girl reaches London without her father and things fall in place for the uneducated mathematical genius. In 1977, Shakuntala Devi calculated the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in about 50 seconds. And in 1980, she multiplied two 13-digit numbers given to her randomly by the Computer Department of Imperial College, London.

The story gives us glimpses of these events hurriedly, and is centred around a daughter feeling wronged about living under the shadow of her successful mother. Anupama never believed her mother loved her enough or was capable of anything beyond her passion for mathematics.

Perhaps lack of research or an intended deviation from the central character, Shakuntala Devi’s cranial capability is reduced to being mere ‘mumbo-jumbo.’ As a blessing from Lord Ganesh one that couldn’t even be deciphered by the Psychologist at the University of California-Berkeley.

I was looking forward to watching Shakuntala Devi

It’s been a while since Mary Kom and The Dirty Picture came. We remember these biopics for their strong female protagonists. These two movies stood out for me, more than Dangal. It seemed like it tried to appease an ensemble cast and deviated from the struggles of the two young girls breaking the barriers, entering an unknown turf’ for women.

Dangal showed a father’s contribution to his daughters’ life, point taken. Shakuntala Devi is a turnaround that looks back at a daughter’s sacrifices growing up in absence of a normal childhood, with a busy and famous mother.

The second reason to await this movie was Vidya Balan playing the role of Shakuntala Devi. She is one actress in the Hindi film industry who has the seamless ability to portray a character to its true tenacity. Sadly, she delivers an amalgamation of Silk Smitha from her The Dirty Picture closet and Sulu from Tumhari Sulu for the role of Shakuntala Devi.

Shakuntala Devi was definitely unconventional but I refuse to believe she was an eccentric woman. Now, why do I stride a conservative viewpoint? I should be more liberal in giving independence to a filmmaker to present her version of the character. That of the grief of broken childhood to the rich, educated, world travelling daughter pitted against the poor, hardworking single mother.

The role of her father in her life

I understand some movies are made to present an alternate view of the popular perception of a character or event. A novel concept but for Shakuntala Devi, this was her first preview in the cinematic world.

Did Shakuntala Devi’s father merely live off his daughter’s earnings? In the pre-independence era with abysmally low literacy levels, poor economic conditions, and overall quality of life, her mind developed to become a genius. The first human to notice this ability was her father, a man working at the circus.

He was someone who taught his three-year-old a card trick and made her perform for additional income. By the age of six, many schools and Universities wanted to see this prodigious girl’s arithmetic skills. Indeed, something in that card trick would have triggered Shakuntala Devi’s brain.

An overdramatic personal life

You skip past many of the important life events of Shakuntala Devi in somewhat comic stance. The entire movie seems to focus on men in Shakuntala Devi’s life and the parties she attended. There is more screen time on deciding sarees and hairstyles of the lead. Thankfully, only a couple of songs brew up.

Another retro character to pop up is Sanya Malhotra as Anupama Banerji in a time-lapse narrative. You are made to realize Shakuntala Devi failing miserably to impress her daughter with her genius mind or wealth (Something the trailers did hint at)

There definitely are moments when Shakuntala Devi as a movie works and strikes a chord with you. The crux of the movie is the mother-daughter relationship across two generations, exploring Shakuntala Devi’s mother and Shakuntala Devi as a mother. Like every Indian daughter, Shakuntala also hears from her mother that she will only understand her predicament once she becomes a mother. Of course this prophecy is passed on, with each generation learning at the juncture of motherhood, the sacrifices made by their mother.

The problem is Shakuntala Devi’s mother never stood up for her, didn’t fight with her husband to save her daughter’s childhood. However, Anupama Banerji dwells more on the emotional needs of a daughter.

There are moments of Anupama as a new mother, struggles with her newborn and dilemmas regarding her profession. You realize the movie treading off course and widening the discussion on managing motherhood and work. Why should only women compromise? Yes, a pertinent point but we deviated from the main trajectory.

The modern Indian woman’s narrative

Shakuntala Devi is the story of a woman who could break free of the poverty cycle and become a world-renowned success. We may debate whether this was a miracle, a God gift or pure hard work at acquiring mathematical ability.

But Shakuntala Devi certainly stands tall in her achievements. Apart from maths performances, she also authored books ranging from memory exercises to the Indian caste system to social planning to homosexuality.

The New Education Policy 2020 may have just opened us to see beyond rote-learning. And here, we have a bright example of an uneducated girl acquiring the skills unforeseen under the formal education structure.

Was she a street genius, a culpable irony of genes or did she hit upon a genie, we may not know! She even met Albert Einstein, and there is not a scene in the movie.

A Glimpse of Shakuntala Devi on Youtube

Prasar Bharati has uploaded a program done in 1977 with Shakuntala Devi solving cube roots. This was the first show done by Shakuntala Devi in India after returning from America. I was impressed by this lady’s impeccable linguistic skill and the charm to hold the audiences at awe of her mathematical and management abilities.

What I really wish was that this movie had brought a speck of her real personality. I wanted this movie to make me fall in love with mathematics.  And I wanted to return to my Mental Mathematics book and solve those empty answer columns once the movie ended. But, I just wonder about Shakuntala Devi as a person. Whether this was the real person or a cinematic version with the masala for the audiences’ eyeballs.

I was left with my questions that now I seek on the internet.

  • How did Shakuntala Devi survive in a foreign country on her own?
  • And how did she train her brain to solve the mathematical problems so quickly?
  • Why didn’t a woman who authored so many books write her autobiography?
  • What led Shakuntala Devi to turn from a Mathematical genius to an Astrologer? She could have been an advisor to the Government on the education system.
  • What about her philanthropic venture?

The movie didn’t solve the puzzle. It just led me on to a different turf. I kept thinking what if this was a standalone movie, simply exploring the relation between a successful mother and her daughter.

Picture credits: Still from the Amazon Prime film Shakuntala Devi

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