Shakuntala Devi Review: An Endearing Film Capturing The Genius As A Mother And As A Woman

The film on Shakuntala Devi, starring Vidya Balan, has premiered on Amazon Prime today, and we finally have a woman protagonist who is independent yet tender, strong yet humane. The film, from its very disclaimer, refuses to call itself a biopic. As written on the top of the screen at the start, the film does take “creative liberty” in portraying the legendary genius that was Shakuntala Devi. There’s no doubt that the film is a Vidya Balan show through and through, although one absolutely cannot overlook the stellar performances given by Sanya Malhotra, Jishhu Sengupta and Amit Sadh. The film is directed by Anu Menon, who is also the co-writer of its screenplay along with Nayanika Mahtani.

A Tale Told In Time-Jumps

The film revolves around the life of Shakuntala Devi, a name that hardly needs introductions. Popularly known as the ‘Human Computer’, the list of Devi’s achievements go beyond what any two-hour-long film can probably ever capture. And that is perhaps the brilliance of Menon’s storytelling because even while presenting a story about this world-famous math wizard, she shows us the woman behind the genius. The film goes back and forth between present and past, with Devi’s daughter Anu (Malhotra) dominating the former, while Devi herself rules the latter. We see a young Shakuntala Devi, whose parents forget that she’s a child and not just a prodigy. She is made to do shows to showcase her talents, from which she earns money and gets her family going. As she grows up, she becomes resentful of her upbringing, especially of her mother, and decides to be everything that is not her. And from there starts the journey of a genius, who wins people’s hearts with her mathematical calculations and witty comebacks alike.

Devi journeys from Bangalore to London, where she is doubly marginalised, being a woman mathematician from “the land of snake-charmers and elephants”. But the grit and determination that she shows is spellbinding, as is Vidya Balan’s portrayal of the same. Balan steps into Devi’s character with such ease, that even when she is not saying anything, the film audience can feel the smug confidence of a genius seeping out of her aura.

The second half of the film focuses more on the personal life of Devi, from her marriage to her daughter Anu’s marriage. We get to see her as a wife and a mother, and this is where the film strikes a chord. One may or may not be able to relate to the mathematician who claims live on BBC that “I am never wrong; the computer is wrong”. But when the film shifts its gaze to focus on how Devi handles her relationships, we finally see the human heart hidden behind this personality. And it is near the end of the second half, that we also realise that the film has lived up to its statement of not being a biopic. Because it has gone ahead and done so much more: it has strived to become an ode to motherhood.

Also Read: Interview: Shakuntala Devi’s Daughter On How Her Mother Defeated Gender Stereotypes

The Genius As A Mother: The Mother As A Woman

The film does not just shift between years, it also shifts gazes. The later years are mostly seen from the eyes of Devi’s daughter Anu, who hates to live under the shadow of her mother’s name. We feel bad for both the daughter and the mother, as they struggle to find a balance between normalcy and genius.

How can a mother dream of things that would mean leaving behind her own daughter? How can a daughter expect a mother to give up her entire life and career, just for her sake? Does giving up on your ambitions and focusing all your time/energy on rearing a child automatically make you a good mother? Or the woman who refuses to compromise a bad one? These are some of the existential questions that the film deals with. And it takes them to new levels, for the very woman it weaves such questions around is someone who is determined to “conquer the world” (as Devi herself proclaims at the very start).

Also Read: Director Anu Menon on Feminism and Why She Made ‘Shakuntala Devi’

There are a few shortcomings, like how the film rushes through certain points in Devi’s life. It also gets pretty dramatic at times, and occasionally fails to make the time-jumps gentle or fluid. Despite that, it is completely, in its absolute entirety, a story of a woman, told by a woman. It does not pit women against women, neither does it let men in Devi’s life take the centre stage. There are some exceptionally powerful dialogues that hit the right spots, dialogues that are not just focused on motherhood, but on the experience of being a woman in general. All in all, the film is a joy to watch, as it successfully captures the essence of the free-spirit that Shakuntala Devi was. And there’s not a decimal of doubt regarding that.

Picture Credit: YouTube Screenshot

Dyuti Gupta is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. The views expressed are the author’s own.