“Am I correct ?” asks a triumphant Shakuntala Devi every time she solves humongous maths equations in insanely inhuman pace and jumps at the applause with childlike zest. The cheering follows on cue. Accompanied with some rousing background score and in the brightest of sarees, Vidya Balan plays her with full-blooded commitment and a full-throttle signature laugh ! Vidya is luminous as Shakuntala Devi and it’s simply hard to look away from her.
Helmed by Anu Menon, who also wrote the screenplay along with Nayanika Mahtani, Shakuntala Devi is based on a true story of our maths genius whose exploits earned her the moniker of “human computer“.
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However, the film is seen through the eyes of her daughter Anupama Banerji. Shakuntala Devi's balancing act between math and motherhood that tested the delicate mother -daughter relationship.
The story moves forward in a non- linear fashion. From 2001 London we go back to Bangalore 1934, as a little Shakuntala solves maths problems as nonchalantly as reciting nursery rhymes. The parents (played by Ipshita Chakraborty, Prakash Belawadi) are dumbfounded . In no time, as her fame spreads far and wide, she travels all around for her unique “ math shows” - exhibiting her genius as she speaks out numbers that deal with tough mathematical equations as if someone is whispering her the answer while the room full of people applauded !
In London, when she is asked what is it that she loves about being on stage, her immediate response is “to see people’s face when they see a girl in chotis (braids) doing maths”. How ? How does she do it? Everyone asks her and Vidya just heartily laughs. Beating a computer, travelling the world, enthralling sceptics and admirers alike. Of the many lovely dialogues written by Ishita Moitra , the one mouthed by Tarabai (Sheeba Chadhha) In whose guesthouse Shakuntala stays when she first lands in England is my favourite - “Ek ladki agar apne mann ki sunti hai aur Dil khol ker hansti hai usse zaada darwana mardon ke liye Aur kya hoga”.
The portions where we follow Shakuntala Devi display her wizardry are an absolute lark. Hugely enjoyable and fascinating thanks to Antara Lahiri’s consummate editing. The treatment is also meted out without any judgement .
Shakuntala Devi is shown in all her glory. “I never lose” she repeats a number of times in the film. Her almost absent childhood, something she regrets all her life, makes her want to overcompensate by achieving all that her heart desires. In doing so, the fact that she robs her own daughter of her freewheeling childhood escapes her. “Why does a man always want a woman to need him?”, another line that Shakuntala utters twice in the film at significant junctures .
The film is as much about the titular character as chronicling how the other relationships she forges manage to find their rays of light under her towering shadow. There's the mild-mannered Paritosh Banerji, played by a very pleasing Jisshu Sengupta, whom she she goes on to marry . And her daughter Anupama, played by Sanya Malhotra. A woman living a life unapologetically and portrayed without judgement. That is the film's biggest strength. Shakuntala’s predicament, rationalising the gap between her husband’s apparent support for her dreams and the lived experiences where conditions apply on how much “freedom” she can taste guilt-free and harmonising the two - form the emotional core of the movie.
Shakuntala at every step questions the status quo, be it as a math genius solving equations in lighting speed in what is primarily considered a male domain and a mother who is anything but the self-sacrificing, self-effacing presence we are made to believe is the true version of the role . Shakuntala comes across as terribly selfish and impetuous at times. It’s these human frailties and how beautifully Vidya portrays them that stand out - moments that remain raw and painful as we witness a woman’s struggle to have it all, the world at her feet and her daughter by her side.
Sanya Malhotra ‘s torn self, her rebellion against her mother’s highhandedness is supremely effective. Sanya and Vidya feed off each other’s energies. Highly emotional scenes have been handled with finesse . Amit Sadh plays Sanya’s on-screen husband. A small role that benefits from his charming screen presence.
It is only probably around the end, when the tiff between the two threatens to turn into a full head-on collision, that the proceedings take a slightly melodramatic turn.
That seems like a discordant note in an otherwise sweet-paced film that comes alive especially because of Vidya’s compelling portrayal. Pure joy seeing her bustling through her problems with passionate determination. There is room for every emotion except self pity . Our rating: 3.5 quints out of 5 !