A line early on in the film, when translated, suggests, ‘Nothing scares men more than seeing a woman follow her heart and laugh without abandon’. It’s a fleeting glimpse of the many outstanding gems that are unleashed over this breezy two-hour long narrative that seamlessly upend decade-long ideologies that women must confront and sadly, conform too.
Directed by Anu Menon, ‘Shakuntala Devi’ not just celebrates the legacy of the world’s most renowned mathematician; it’s also an unabashed, unapologetic retelling of a woman’s tryst with fame and its trappings. From earning her place in the Guinness Book of World Records as a human computer without formal schooling, to penning multiple books on mathematics, astrology and homosexuality with a passing mention about her brief stint in politics, the film charts her globe-trotting rise to success but it’s also a running commentary on placing your dreams before everything and everyone you hold dear. More importantly, it captures the volatile dynamics between parent and child.
Firstly, if you take notice of the end credits like I do, you’ll find yourself appreciating the technical marvels at display by a largely woman-dominant crew. The story and screenplay, penned by Menon and Nayanika Mahtani takes flight with the sprightly dialogues written by Ishita Moitra. Every dialogue mouthed by the central character is loaded with sass. A scene involving the meet and greet of two families over marriage had me chuckling so hard that my sides hurt. Another scene that had me hooting is when Devi capsizes an age-old racial slur and tells her friend, ‘All you white guys look the same’. Keiko Nakahara’s frames are transportive and colourful and so is the production design by Vintee Bansal and Meenal Agarwal. Usually, films set in a certain time period carry the pressure of looking authentic and period appropriate. ‘Shakuntala Devi’ chooses blatant use of colour to celebrate Devi’s freedom of choice and her defiance to comply by the unrealistic norms laid by the society. Ably accompanied by Karan Kulkarni’s background score, the film also marks Sachin-Jigar’s most competent work in a while. ‘Rani Hindustani’ will leave you swaying and ‘Paheli’ will leave you teary-eyed. Technically, the letdown is the editing by Antara Lahiri. This is one of those rare instances where you feel that the film could’ve indulged in its length, especially when you have a compelling actor telling the fascinating, milestone-laden story of a legend.
That brings me to the performances. Nobody on the face of the earth could’ve been more fitting for the central role than the Marvelous Ms. Vidya Balan. Alike the woman she’s portraying on-screen, Balan refused to conform to the template laid for Hindi film heroines, charting her own trajectory that boasts of enviable film choices. She took the plunge earlier so that actresses like Bhumi Pednekar, Taapsee Pannu and the likes could follow suit. From the diction, the body language and the emotions, the actress offers yet another towering act that infantilizes everyone else in her path. She brings out the wonder, grit, dynamism, flaws and sassiness of Devi without once coming across as sorry or watchful. Speaking of ‘mothers and daughters’, if there is something both my mother and I agree upon, it is the infectious laughter of the actress that radiates through like sunshine. I don’t know of any other actress after Sridevi, who can ace physical comedy as easily as she does. Matching her energy with sincerity and earnestness is Sanya Malhotra as Devi’s daughter Anupama Banerji. She brings out the vulnerability, frustration and confusion of a child who struggles to blur the lines between her mother’s selfishness and selflessness. The scenes featuring the actors’ turbulent relationship as mother and daughter is the kind of women equation seldom explored in Hindi cinema. Amit Sadh as Anupama’s husband Ajay Kumar is heartfelt. We are thankful that we are seeing more of him. The visible chink in this cast is Jisshu Sengupta as Devi’s husband Paritosh Banerji, an IAS officer. His performance hardly differs from his act in ‘Piku’. Luca Calvani as Devi’s friend Javier makes a more lasting impression. I’d have loved to see more of their friendship evolve.
With befitting tributes to the legend marking her accomplishments and familial bonds through pictures shared by the real Anupama Banerji and her husband Ajay Kumar, ‘Shakuntala Devi’, boasting of a stellar act by its leading lady, makes for essential viewing. Eventually, you’ll find yourself beaming with wonder and hope. Maybe, even break into a jig with 'Pass Nahi Toh Fail Nahi'. Vidya Kasam.