Shakuntala Devi: Director Anu Menon On The Film's Triumphs, Flaws And Its Depiction Of Homosexuality

Menon, who directed the Vidya Balan-starrer that recently released on Amazon Prime Video, unpacks the craft and creative decisions behind the film.
Vidya Balan in a still from 'Shakuntala Devi'.
Vidya Balan in a still from 'Shakuntala Devi'.

Shakuntala Devi, a film produced by the Vikram Malhotra-led Abundantia Entertainment and Sony Pictures, was originally scheduled for a theatrical release before the coronavirus pandemic forced the makers to opt for an Amazon Prime Video release.

The Vidya Balan-starrer, directed by Anu Menon (London, Paris, New York, Waiting, Four More Shots S1) with dialogues by Ishita Moitra, carries a tonality that indicates that it was originally written for the theatrical experience.

The tone is loud, the dialogues have a seeti-maar quality and the performance of its leading star falls in the mould of a larger-than-life hero, the kind you’d see a Salman Khan or Ajay Devgn play (of course, Shakuntala Devi exists without the misogyny and sexism, rather as a counter to that).

While it’s an engaging story of a complex woman who struggled in her personal life, the film has met with criticism, primarily because of the way it handles the supposed homosexuality of Shakuntala Devi’s husband.

In this interview with HuffPost India, Anu Menon clears the air about why the depiction was the way it was, the reasons behind the film’s visual language and what surprised her the most about Vidya Balan.

Edited excerpts:

Anu Menon
Anu Menon

What I liked the most about ‘Shakuntala Devi’ was that it gave the character the Chulbul Pandey treatment. Initially, the lack of subtlety put me off, but later it appeared that the film’s loud tone mirrors the personality of its protagonist.

Thank you. If you watched it with your family, maybe you would have felt that even more. If you watch it alone, then the pitch feels higher. I know the volume I’ve put in and why. When you go to a theatre, you need that energy. I got a lot of love for Waiting after it went on Netflix. When people saw it in the theatre, they thought it was good. When they saw it alone, they wept.

Having made a film like Waiting, I think I know how to make a quiet film. But when you are writing a film like Shakuntala Devi, you underline the comedy a bit more. The most loved scene in the film is the ‘normal’ scene. It is an Ishita Moitra scene. I had written a scene which was so subdued and muted, she said ‘no, let me tell you how it should be played’. I was giggling when she sent me her scene. At that moment, I realised why I hired her.

Because you wouldn’t naturally come up with something like that?

Instinctively, I’m more muted. I don’t have that chulbula-ness (playfulness) in me. The character is just not me, the character is a drama queen and I knew Ishita has that. Her politics are bang on but she’s a 90s Bollywood baby and I’ve never watched any of those films. So that’s not my instinct but doesn’t mean I can’t get the right person for the job. That’s why you are a director.

How would you have directed it if it was an Amazon or Netflix project? Do you think it would’ve had a different aesthetic style?

I wouldn’t have had the songs. The arc of the script would have been different. I don’t think the energy of the film would have changed but you need the songs for marketing and stuff. If I had a three-act structure, I cannot not introduce Sanya till after the interval. Those choices are what would make it different. When you have to deliver a Hindi film, you’ve to factor for the interval which messes with your structure. The way the music has been used, too, would be different. I would not go so dramatic. Because you’re consuming it intimately, not in a theatre. This kind of stuff happens for Hollywood films too. If you watch Little Women, it’s so elevated as a film!

I felt that on many occasions, the foregrounding was too on-the-nose. The way Shakuntala’s past catches up with her future, where she becomes the same person she hates the most, was spoon-fed and clinically handled.

I think it’s the curse of the second half. The struggle to reach the interval point with a dramatic scene. If I had a three-part structure, I don’t think the restaurant scene would have been there. The mother-daughter scene where Shakuntala tries showing Anu the black book, before she finds out she’s pregnant. That scene is a pre-interval one. I was always a bit unsure of it.

Apart from the songs, this really was the other scene that I grappled with. Even when I am making a mainstream film, the stories I tell are not mainstream. It’s annoying when people don’t give you credit when you’re subverting a genre.

Leading up to the interval is always a very tricky thing. A lot of reasons why it’s a problem for our films, our second half doesn’t work because we’re writing a climax halfway through. Then you have to come back and start all over again. Writing this script killed me, the editing even more so.

If I could remove that scene, I would have but it’s very important because she’s giving the black book in that scene and it comes back in the end. You just hope that people don’t notice these flaws and just go with the energy of the film. But, no film is perfect. Just like our protagonist.

Anu Menon and Vidya Balan on the sets of 'Shakuntala Devi'.
Anu Menon and Vidya Balan on the sets of 'Shakuntala Devi'.

Most of the film’s criticism is around how busy and frantic it feels, with one review equating it with a ‘dramatic lecture’.

I think it’s a very unfair assessment. I think it’s an energetic film, I think you feel for her. We had lectures in our films and this isn’t one of them. For me, she’s my Disney Princess with demons of her own. She’s my Chulbul Pandey, my Mary Poppins. It has a fairytale feel to it. Sanju has that same kind of energy. This film captures her spirit and her energy and even a dramatic mother-daughter conflict that has never been explored in Hindi cinema.

What’s the deal with the husband’s character? Many have called it out for straight-washing his sexual identity. Which would be a fair criticism... if he was actually gay?

Goes without saying that we did extensive research and gathered all the possible facts. The fact is he was not gay. What will it take for them to believe me? If he was, we’d show that he actually was, right? It’s a readymade conflict for us in the context of the marriage, why would we not? Especially given that we’re showing the fact that she sued her own daughter?

Now, I could’ve given more information. But that information is not for me to give because that impacts people beyond the people who have given me the rights. My rights are through the daughter and son-in-law. I have to be true to that and take up whatever liberties I can. It’s a very difficult balancing act you do.

First tell me this, how did you decide he was gay? Did you research beyond Wikipedia? Either you do research on your own or you engage or you call up the family, friends and ask. I have realised that people who rant on Twitter don’t want to know the truth because if they accept the truth then they’ll have to stop ranting. They’re not important and visible after that. You can’t please them all. So, it is pointless if you rant about why it’s a mother-daughter story or why it’s not about the genius that Shakuntala was. We chose the story we wanted to tell. If you feel like I’ve falsified his sexuality, no I have not. If you feel otherwise, please do your research.

We used the incident as a catalyst when Shakuntala crosses a line in their relationship. The point of the film is not her relationship with her husband. That’s a different film. If people want closure about that, then the truth is that he didn’t get any either. He would say, “Shakuntala aisi hi hai.” (Shakuntala is just like this). He knew and understood her so well, it frustrated the daughter.

She’d ask him how he could be so nonchalant. But she’s written a goddamn great book. She wrote an amazing book on homosexuality. People kept saying, “But how do you know?” and so she invented a story—she’d do that often—and gave people what they wanted to hear. After that, she suddenly became credible.

The scene where Sanya’s character, Anu, suddenly warms up to motherhood after being staunchly against having a child, felt a bit disingenuous. Not only could I not buy that character’s abrupt transformation but it fell into the idea of every woman having a maternal instinct that kicks in once she gets pregnant.

That scene could’ve been longer. We could’ve had more scenes. I did not realise it would come across like that. I did not see it like that. To me, she was always a rebel until it (the pregnancy) actually happened. She’d base her decisions on what her own mother wanted to do. Amit Sadh’s character says it as well, ”Tum jab tak apni Maa ki proxy banke rahogi, tumhara kuch nahi ho sakta hai. When will you find out what you really want?” (Until you stop identifying yourself as your mother’s proxy, nothing will become of you.) Those are the fights they had.

I accept that if it did not come through, then it’s a screenplay flaw, maybe. Also remember that you have to keep moving forward. It’s the kind of a film where you are telling two stories. So, when you do a juxtaposition, you have to remember you have this larger-than-life story and then the smaller story. Every time you come to the smaller story, you don’t want the energy to drop off. There are so many things that one takes into account, the story, the arc, the truth etc. That’s something maybe I didn’t consider and nobody else has told me so far but I get it. My politics are very clear in the film, the form and craft are subjective.

It’s in moments like these where I felt that the film could’ve switched to a more contemplative tone. Where you see her grappling with the situation before she arrives at the decision of wanting the child even after her initial scepticism.

No, I agree. This reminds me of what Naseer (actor Naseerudin Shah, who she directed in Waiting) used to say. “It’s not true to the character.” If you ask him to do something, he would say, ‘no I won’t do it, because the character would not do it’. But you mentioned this in your review and that’s an observation in the right sense. Now, what can we do?

Anu Menon and Vidya Balan
Anu Menon and Vidya Balan

In the absence of face-to-face interactions with the person, what did Vidya Balan rely on to get the performance right? She’s extraordinary in the role.

We had several videos but all of them are from the time when she was in her 60s or 70s. There was an archive of her performances in 1977 which suddenly went viral. You can see her energy there and how Vidya has followed it through and through. Sneha Rajani, the (former) head of Sony, green-lit the film and she remembered when Shakuntala Devi came to her school and someone told her, “Ma’am you’re amazing.” to which she replied, “I know.” We retained that.

So you take all this information and you create the deceit. You stay true to that. After a point you decide that a person is like so and so and this will be her energy. Language, for example. We’re making a Hindi film but it’s her English that has a little bit more of an accent. If she spoke with that Hindi accent all the time, then it would be very irritating.

So we gave it a little Hema Malini and a little Sridevi touch. Then she had to age, as she grows older, her energy dims. Her bitterness becomes a little more evident. She gets unlikeable as she’s older. Her sense of invincibility is challenged. She was a drama queen. When I met Anu (her daughter), it was only three years since her mother had died. I found a daughter who didn’t know what to do with that space. It was so moving, talking to her, I knew this was my movie. Why should I make a biopic about the numbers? This is where the heart of it is.

That’s also one of the criticisms. That more than focusing on her genius, it focuses on the mother-daughter angle, something that wouldn’t be the case if it were a male mathematician/celebrity.

It was important for us that we don’t just idolise Shakuntala but also humanise her. By bringing in the family drama, she is not just a distant figure doing amazing things, but one of us facing the same insecurities and vulnerabilities, and that creates a greater emotional connect with the character. And you are inspired that even Shakuntala Devi went through what everybody goes through. And how she faced it! From Sanju to Steve Jobs, there are plenty of examples where a story of parent-offspring is explored, as far as male biopics are considered.

I didn’t see any merit in that argument. What I liked about the film was that it didn’t treat her as an underdog nor did it put her on a pedestal. She was a complicated, contradictory person and the film bought that alive.

Yep. And if some people don’t get it, I can’t help it. Just to be able to tell a mainstream story about a flawed heroine, I think we’ve come a long way. I feel like we should celebrate that and I feel genuinely proud of it. One always gets better with their craft. I had a beautiful team. There was never a point where we were confused as to what should happen.

Finally, what about working with Vidya Balan stayed with you the most?

Vidya is something else. I have not met an actor who kills the way she does. She takes a long time to say yes. I was her first female director. She started enjoying that energy because we were both so taken by the subject and it was a beautiful collaboration. We had done a lot of sessions and we had a lot of things to say to each other because we both have our feminism, because we knew it had a lot of politics which is being sweetened and fed into the system by making it easily digestible.

Right before the shoot, she called me one day and said, “Anu, I just want to make sure I’ve got the arc right. I just want to tell you the story so you can tell me I’ve got it all right.”

Believe me, she told me the whole story scene-wise, chronologically. She narrated my story back to me and I didn’t know what to do, I had to go to the bathroom! She had internalised the whole film. So when she was on set, she was super-relaxed.

And that’s what I realised is the secret of every Vidya Balan performance. She gets everything into her system and then she goes with instinct. She’s not a trained actress, so to speak, but has figured her game. She has found her methods and traits.

For Shakuntala, she worked with a dialogue coach to ensure the South Indian accent in her dialogue was accurate. She’d often go, ‘is this too loud? Is this too soft?’ She’d talk a lot and ask if she should be a little more gunda (thug). Shakuntala was a little bit gunda too, so to say. So we had a lot of fun like that but that is Vidya for you. I can’t imagine an actor taking all the material the way she does.

What’s the one thing that surprised you the most about her and became your big takeaway?

Before I left for London early this year, right before London, I met her for lunch. She said she wanted to ask me something and then she went on to ask if I could give her feedback on how she could’ve done things better. She also said that this isn’t about me telling her how amazing she is.

She wanted to know specifically what she could have done it differently, how she should improve. As nobody is perfect, we had an actual conversation about things we both could have done. So yeah, that’s Vidya for you.

What did you say?

I said maybe she could do a workshop away from Bollywood to find methods for different genres. Like how can we do comedy differently? How can we be sharper? I think comedy is amongst the weakest links of Bollywood. We rely a lot on slapstick. I’ve struggled the most because when you see English actors, they do comedy a lot more easily. Here it’s about adding the sounds to punctuate the humour. So yeah, I told her maybe a workshop in a totally different environment could be helpful.

Had such a thing happened before?

I don’t think any actor has asked if they could do better. Everyone in this town says they’re the best, you deal with the rest. I learnt a lot from her.
As a friend used to say, an actor is always as unhappy as the unhappiest member of the audience. That is also true for filmmakers. How much ever love you get, there will always be one review that pulls me down. This constant cycle that happens to a filmmaker is always hard. I think Vidya has freed herself from that. She has that ability to come, do her bit, give it her all and move on. I’m not saying she’s without self-doubt or anything but she’s definitely less angsty and has the ability to enjoy the process a lot more. I have my ups and downs. For a filmmaker, it’s about the critics. You will spend more time thinking about that one negative comment than the thousand other positives.