As Shakuntala Devi, starring Vidya Balan in and as the human computer, gears up for its Amazon Prime release on July 31, SheThePeople had the opportunity of speaking to the film’s director Anu Menon. Menon, who has also directed other well-known films like London, Paris, New York (2012) and Waiting (2015), is currently based in London. 

Here, we discuss the life and times of Shakuntala Devi, why Menon chose to direct a biopic on her, and the need for empowering women today.

Watch the exclusive interview here:

Being A Feminist Came Naturally To Shakuntala Devi

Biopics have become common film themes in Bollywood today, but never before has the Indian audience seen a cinematic expression on women in mathematics and science headlined by a female protagonist. With Menon’s Shakuntala Devi, that story is set to be fleshed out on screen. So why did she choose to make a film on her?  “It started with me wanting to make films about a female protagonist… Also, a stray comment from my daughter who said, “Boys love maths, girls love English.” But growing up in India, maths was equal to Shakuntala Devi. So we found Anupama’s (Shakuntala Devi’s daughter) contact in London, and Sunainika, my co-writer, and I went to meet her for a coffee.” Menon said. 

The trailer of the film makes it pretty clear that Shakuntala Devi was no ordinary woman. She was determined, confident, and owned herself everywhere she went – as if being a feminist came naturally to her. Menon feels she was a feminist even “before feminism was a movement.” She seamlessly adapted, what we today know as emancipatory lifestyles, into her own life because “she did not define herself by her gender. She just did what came instinctively to her.”

Shakuntala Devi Did Not Let People Put Her In Boxes

Anu Menon says, “She never understood when people would say, ‘How does it feel to be a female mathematician?’ She did not wake up in the morning and think ‘Oh, I’m a woman who loves numbers’… That conditioning was not there. She did not judge herself on those parameters at all.”

It has often been cited that Devi was vocal about her “pro-homosexuality” stance, and this, at a time when mainstream India was still caught up with gender binaries and labels. Menon says, “She didn’t need the world to tell her what she needs to fight against.” Backing this, Devi’s daughter, Anupama Banerji, has expressly said that her mother was “far, far ahead of her times.” 

Naturally, the chatter and stereotypes around her must have been loud at the time. But Devi did not let society’s habit of putting people in boxes dampen her spirits, because as Menon says, “What people thought of her was rather irrelevant.”

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She Used To Love Dancing, Singing, Parties, Adventures

Menon gives context to Balan’s happy-go-lucky demeanour in the film’s trailer, explaining with a chuckle, “Shakuntala Devi loved singing, dancing… She used to play Fred Astaire and dance the whole night. She was having Sex and The City kind of parties in 1950s England. She used to make dosas for everyone. So people could continue to put her in a box… but she was already off to her next adventure.” 

Devi also battled the stereotype that mathematicians are nerds who don’t care for humour. Menon says, “Shakuntala Devi didn’t care. She was a fun person, she had a great sense of humour – 90 percent of the one-liners in the film are her own.” 

But there wasn’t just the mathematician stereotype Devi had to break back then. She was also a divorcee, a single mother, and an earning woman. Menon says she was nonchalant about it all, because “she did not need men.” She explains, “There is a recurring theme that men need women to need them. But Shakuntala Devi could love a man just because she loved him. She could say to a man, ‘I want your baby, I’m not asking you to marry me.'”

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“It’s Important To Humanise Famous People”

Shakuntala Devi is not the first film, however, where Anu Menon has directed a story that attempts to overturn stereotypes. Waiting, starring Kalki Koechlin and Naseeruddin Shah, showed the partner-age gap issue. Menon says selecting these storylines are not a conscious choice for her, because “Stories choose you. I’m drawn towards women characters who make mistakes and become better. These are not strong women, but they’re front-footed.” 

This is why, she says, she has included a wholesome picture of Devi’s identity in the film – flaws and all. “When you tell stories of successful people, it’s important to humanise them. Not all the things you do will be right or successful… but it’s okay to fail,” she says. 

But what of the hundred stigmas and stereotypes we battle every day as women? Menon says the main thing is to have “courage to do what we want… Whatever you do, there will be people who say, “Yaar why did you do that?” But you have to be true to yourself, and listen to your inner voice.” 

Making an example out of Devi, she says how we can all be more like her – an independent, self-confident woman. “She did not define herself basis what others thought of her. She did not seek validation. All of us are in that trap… All of us today are seeking validation from social media and how many likes you have. How have we come to this?” 

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Feminism Should Not Be About Labelling

Menon wraps up by talking about what feminism means to her. She feels Balan’s iteration of the concept, by labelling herself as a “feminist-work-in-progress,” is really the way to go forth. “Saying what is feminism and sticking to one narrative is dangerous. We need to constantly have these conversations, because as women, we own half the world. We are owed that respect and equality,” she says. 

Recalling an anecdote, she expounds her perspective towards feminism. “I went to BITS Pilani; we had a curfew, and we never questioned it. We were all feminists then, but we just thought we would be safer like this. In that continuum of feminism, now I wonder why I didn’t question that.” 

Now she knows that “one size does not fit all,” and advises women to “not get into labels like – ‘I’m more feminist than you.’ We’re talking about thousands of years of patriarchy – so we’re all in it together. It’s more important than ever before that this journey moves forward.” 

Tanvi Akhauri is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. 

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