Movie Review – Shakuntala Devi

Yet another biopic in the Bollywood stables is the 31st July Amazon Prime release – Shakuntala Devi. While most biopics are on sports personalities, it was refreshing to see one on a mathematical genius.

Shakuntala was born in a poor Kannada family and was “good with numbers”, even though she had received no formal education. It is said that the real Shakuntala Devi acquired her skill as her father, a circus performer by profession, used to include her in card tricks.

Once it became apparent that the young girl had a real gift, her father began to take her on road shows, where she used to take up mathematical challenges and rattle off answers in the blink of an eye. Subsequently, she traveled to various cities abroad hosting her shows.

According to facts stated in Wikipedia: In 1977, she gave the 23rd root of a 201-digit number in 50 seconds. Her answer was confirmed by calculations done by a UNIVAC 1101 computer, for which a special program had to be written to perform such a large calculation, and it took a longer time than for her to do the same.

On 18 June 1980, she demonstrated the multiplication of two 13-digit numbers — 7,686,369,774,870 × 2,465,099,745,779. These numbers were picked at random by the Department of Computing at Imperial College London. She correctly answered 18,947,668,177,995,426,462,773,730 in 28 seconds, which was the time taken by her to speak the answer. This event was recorded in the 1982 Guinness Book of Records.

Although tests were conducted on her brain to find out how she does it, the studies came up with nothing. There is a good scene in the movie, where the expert gives her an elaborate explanation in lieu of an answer and when Shakuntala asks him to state it in plain terms, he goes, “We don’t know yet”.

In fact, it is being portrayed that Shakuntala herself is unaware about her abilities. But in some scenes, she explains the techniques that she uses for finding the squares of complicated numbers, for example, which suggests that she must have at least read extensively on the subject.

It would have been interesting to find out how she hones her skills.

But instead of dwelling in that angle, the movie runs a parallel track into her dysfunctional family life.

As a child, Shakuntala resented her father for using her as an income source. Her anger further rises when her sister Sharda expires due to her family not being able to provide her health care. She vows to her sister that she will one day be a successful independent woman. Through all this, she hates her mother for being dependent upon her father and not having her own opinion.

However, once Shakuntala has her own daughter, she repeats the cycle by separating the child from her father and chains her to her side while she travels for her Maths shows. Her daughter grows up to resent Shakuntala for her dominance, like how Shakuntala hated her mother for her subservient nature. It takes a major rift between mother-daughter to remind them both of the famous saying which goes, “By the time a woman realizes her mother was right, she has a daughter who thinks she’s wrong.”

That’s all the emotional crux of the movie is about. And it makes the movie just an average experience and not something “amazing” (a movie reference).

What holds the movie afloat is Vidya Balan’s flawless act. It is obvious that Balan was a dependable choice for the role. Maybe in the hands of lesser experienced actors, the movie would have not managed to draw audiences to the character of this boisterous young lady dressed in beautiful sarees. Balan makes you admire the mathematical wiz, envy her wealthy banjaara life and hate her manipulative behavior.

It definitely helps that the supporting star cast did their part well – Sanya Malhotra(as the rebellious daughter), Jisshu Sengupta(the supportive husband) and Amit Sadh(the practical damaad).

As one final thought – it won’t hurt to watch the movie esp since we are in a lockdown anyway, best utilize all the streaming options. And you might even pick up some Maths tricks. But I doubt, it’s gonna make you want to emo-hug your mom.

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