As an actor, Vidya Balan is like a storm. One so strong that she ends up pummelling—and in the case of this film, dwarfing—everyone around her. It’s appropriate, then, that she’s fronting Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi biopic, also about a woman who reigned like a thunderstorm, lived unapologetically and on her own terms, and ended up confronting and resolving the consequences. Not only did she not get swayed by societal norms, she actively advocated against them, sometimes going a bit too far for her own good.
Shakuntala Devi starts off in template-biopic fashion, efficiently establishing the young girl’s mind-boggling ability to solve complicated mathematical problems. In what may come as a surprise to the generations of Indians who bought her many books on puzzles and numbers, the film also outlines the childhood neglect and exploitation Shakuntala faced from her father. She grows up to despise both her parents, but more her mother, for being subservient to her husband. It’s an important marker that later defines the relationship she herself has with her daughter and the conflict she faces between being the perfect parent and wanting to globetrot and enjoy her own success.
The film’s first half is breezy, funny, standard fare, but there’s a joy in watching Menon treat her protagonist the same way male geniuses have been portrayed on screen for decades. This is when the film charts out Shakuntala’s rise as a celebrity in London, where she hops from one sold-out event to another packed performance, tripping on her own success, making snazzy jokes where she laughs the loudest. She’s a rockstar in the guise of a scientist, an interesting shift from the stereotypes one associates with ‘scientist characters’. Her ultimate high? The look of bewilderment on white faces and the question that shadows her all the time: how do you do it?
While it’s a delight to watch Vidya Balan own and electrify the stage, this is also when you begin to feel impatient as the film tries to find a point of conflict. Until the film’s first hour is over, there isn’t any real obstacle in Shakuntala’s journey, barring a couple of racist rejections. Her ascent from obscurity to ubiquity almost feels preordained in the absence of any real depiction of struggle. Even if it was that way in real life, a conflict here would’ve put her success in perspective, giving her a steadier graph.
The film picks up when it begins to examine the pitfalls of fame and more importantly, explores what happens when it seeps into the lives of those who were born into it but grew up not wanting it. Shakuntala Devi explodes and rages and gets under the skin of a messy daughter-mother relationship, a dynamic left pitifully unexplored in much of Hindi cinema (the father-son relationship being so much more palatable).
While Shakuntala herself was robbed of a ‘normal’ childhood, she repeats the same mistake by micromanaging her daughter’s life, robbing her of not just a regular childhood but also an identity that is independent of her outsized shadow. She imposes her way of life as the only way of living a life, infantilising her daughter and dismissing her agency, all of which become potent material for exploring deeper themes such as the burden of legacy and how parents end up becoming the yardstick for their children’s successes (and failures).
Sanya Malhotra, who plays the daughter Anu Banerji, has a calm presence that masks the turmoil within. The actor, who excelled in Ritesh Batra’s Photograph, captures her character’s anguish and helplessness with a measured ease. However, I was surprised at one aspect of her character: she’s shown as someone who is rigidly against having a child but when she does end up conceiving (unplanned), her reservations melt away as if they never existed. It feels like a lazy copout. This isn’t to say that she could not have changed her mind but to do so within seconds of the pregnancy being detected when you’ve protested against any mention of an offspring before, reflects a slight recklessness on part of the film’s writing.
“Why do men always want women to need them” is a dialogue that’s repeated twice in the film. It’s an interesting query and becomes a sharp entry point into examining the role of men in Shakuntala Devi’s life. She had a difficult marriage but the film ensures that it points out that this wouldn’t be the case if it was the man who had to move continents for a job. It’d be expected that the whole clan would anchor themselves wherever the man had to be. This strand emerges again at a later stage and is resolved neatly in the end with the realisation that it ultimately boils down to the ability to make the choice, something Shakuntala Devi is blind towards given her own past and despite her own independent spirit.
Unintentionally, it captures something else: in Internet-speak, the performative wokeness of men. Shakuntala’s husband, Paritosh Banerji, is seemingly progressive but, as we later learn, it comes with a set of ‘limitations’. The film goes a step further and entertains the idea that so-called woke men are woke as long as it doesn’t become an inconvenience for them. The minute the ‘adjust’ and ‘compromise’, as Sima aunty would say, is directed at them (us), we’d go scurrying out. It’s easier to perform than to actually espouse the values that one claims to champion.
While the film’s visual and sonic palette is loud and celebratory, as if to mimic the trajectory and attitude of Shakuntala’s own life, scenes about emotional strife may have been more effective if depicted with an understated gaze.
It’s evident, without the use of expository dialogue, that Shakuntala is turning into a version of her own father, being inconsiderate of her daughter’s feelings of alienation and putting herself first. But this implicit feeling is then actually spelt out with a dramatic confrontation.
The dialogue, by Ishita Moitra, is charming and witty and Balan throws those lines with formidable sass, owning every word as if it’s the most hilarious joke in the world. And yet, when it isn’t Balan speaking, it often slips into a space of dialogue-baazi. With Shakuntala, it’s established that she’s loud and vivacious, self-celebrating and self-deprecating. But with others, the same technique doesn’t work.
“She wanted a fight, now she’ll get a war,” Malhotra’s Anu tells her husband after Shakuntala sends them a legal notice. Now, this is the kind of line that squarely belongs in a K-serial. It’s disorienting to imagine such a dramatic, verbose outburst and it pulls you out from the film’s universe. The viewer feels the need for subtlety as the film increasingly feels cacophonic when it could’ve been introspective. The ending, too, is a bit gimmicky. I cringed at the shot where a bunch of exasperated lawyers repeat “mothers and daughters.” It was absolutely non-essential.
And while the cast is mostly on point, Jisshu Sengupta appears as if he’s sleepwalking through his role. While the idea could be that he is a foil that offsets Shakuntala’s outspokenness, he comes across as lacklustre and drab.
Despite these issues, Shakuntala Devi is an eminently watchable film, a drama that is faithful to the complicated, complex and contradictory life of a rare genius, who loved numbers so much that she could seldom see beyond them. Even when she was suing her own daughter.