'Shakuntala Devi' Sensitizes Us to Humane Aspects of Numbers

The film is directed by Anu Menon and stars Vidya Balan in a lead role.

4 min read
Vidya Balan in and as Shakuntala Devi.

Shakuntala Devi’s biopic travels from gender in mathematics to the changing notions of motherhood and lost childhood; but most importantly, it humanizes maths.

Who is a mathematician? Is it someone who has an academic degree in maths? What about a woman who can perform mathematics on stage by conducting complex large calculations without the help of machines? Can we not call such a performer of mathematics, a mathematician? This is the key question Anu Menon’s film asks. Mathematics has predominantly been understood as the genius of the human mind (almost always male) ‘Mathesis’ is the word used in western philosophy for mental calculations. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant placed this mental efficiency of counting (mathesis universalis) as the universal superior skill of the human animal. Though this basic operation holds true for all human beings, some excel in such calculations while others get absolutely horrified by numbers! But it is important to note that in this sense of ‘mathesis’, every human being is a mathematician.

Vidya Balan in a still from Shakuntala Devi.
Vidya Balan in a still from Shakuntala Devi.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

The word ‘mathema’, used by the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, refers to knowledge. Mathematics is thus considered a human pursuit of knowledge. More recently, cognitive linguists and psychologists have argued that mathematics is intrinsic to the cognitive function of the human brain. We could consider here, Where Mathematics Comes From written by George Lakoff and Rafael Nunez.

Shakuntala Devi does not simply humanize mathematics as a cognitive activity, it also intensely connects mathematics with the life of the mathematician.

The film shows us how the mathematical genius (significantly enough, a woman) is not just a special activity of the human mind but also a skill that responds to life. Devi’s skill shapes her fiercely independent identity. In a scene from her childhood, Devi (played by Vidya Balan) tells the school-teacher, who is testing her, that she does not like commas between numbers. Commas come in the way numbers (‘yeh raste mein aata hain’), she says. Her life too becomes this struggle to distance herself from anyone who comes in the way of fulfilling her desire of becoming a world-famous maths genius. As she tells her mentor Javier, English alphabets can be really ‘confusing’ but numbers are clear and distinct in her mind. This high-functioning rationality becomes a roadblock for her relationships.

Vidya Balan and Sanya Malhotra in a still from Shakuntala Devi.
Vidya Balan and Sanya Malhotra in a still from Shakuntala Devi.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

The film approaches mathematics in a gaming turn as the viewers can see all her mathematical activities, electronically represented on screen with interesting animations that lace the subject with magic. Shakuntala Devi was a great enthusiast for teaching maths in innovative ways and wrote a book on how to increase ‘mathability’ (her own word) of kids.

The film does justice to this pedagogic aspect of teaching mathematical calculations in a light-hearted manner. The demonstrative number visuals invite the viewers to do some of the mental calculations themselves.

This is another way the film humanizes mathematics through performance. There is a crucial scene, wherein we see an ageing Shakuntala Devi fail for once in her mathesis after being challenged by a confrontational TV anchor. It is notable that in this scene we are shown how the electronically lit up numbers in her brain conjure psychic scenes from her own lost childhood, hatred for her parents and her ongoing stormy relation with daughter Anupama (played by Sanya Malhotra). The talk show takes place at a sensitive point in her life when her daughter parts ways with her, not being able to stand her overbearing presence.

Vidya Balan in a still from Shakuntala Devi.
Vidya Balan in a still from Shakuntala Devi.
(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

The scene establishes how Shakuntala Devi’s numerical proficiency is intimately associated with her life situations. In the climax, Shakuntala Devi faces her daughter during a legal case regarding property and comments on a particular amount of money (1001001) as a palindromic number sequence (where a flip from both ends results in the same number). We stare here at the zeros and the ones that remain the same from both ends as a slip-bridge between the mother and daughter. To generate a 1 from a 0 (ovum?) is the maternal function of mathematics. Mathematics here becomes a complex cultural metaphor for motherhood.

Devi’s reference to zero in the final filmy speech is an icing on this cake. In a nutshell, Shakuntala Devi sensitizes us to the human and humane properties of numbers. As Devi says in the beginning of her Book of Numbers: “A number is actually a way of thinking, an idea”. The mathematical idea is intimately human.

(Arka Chattopadhyay is Assistant Professor at the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Gandhinagar. He is interested in the representation of mathematics in art, cinema, literature and philosophy.)

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