Anu Menon’s film Shakuntala Devi, starring Vidya Balan and Sanya Malhotra, showed a side of the mathematician most of us didn't know of. Rather than make it all about Shakuntala Devi's professional achievements, the film focuses on the dynamics between her and her daughter Anupama Banerji.
Shakuntala Devi also busted the myth that the math wizard's husband was gay. The Quint caught up with Anupama Banerji and her husband Ajay Kumar, who told us the reason Shakuntala Devi lied about her husband's sexuality while promoting her book The World of Homosexuals.
Ajay and Anupama we have seen in the film that Shakuntala Devi is quite a possessive mother. How did this affect the dynamic between both of you?
Ajay: See, in all fairness, Anu had some preview of how possessive her mother was. Because what the possessiveness you saw with her father also translated with anybody who she got close to. It could be her friends, anyone. So Anu knew how to deal with, I didn’t. I like, walked into the storm with my eyes closed. And the only thing, probably the reason we could cope with it was, I was never overwhelmed by Shakuntala Devi. I never asked her how she did her maths. I never asked Anu if she was as good as her mother because that was never a factor. When I saw Anu, I kind of knew that this is the person so... But I wasn’t prepared for it and she was always in our marriage, throughout our marriage. She was always there constantly. But she’s got this exceptionally sweet side as well. It’s amazing. It’s like, like I was telling somebody she can chop your head off and you’ll say thank you to her when your head’s falling off because she was so charming, you know? She just had this way of disarming you, and there were times I’d be so upset with her. I mean, even post that, but then you’d meet her and you’d say ‘aww she’s so sweet, isn’t she’?
Sanya your role in the film is quite layered. In an interview with us, Vidya had said that she learnt in the very beginning of her career, never to judge a character. Do you have the same approach when you do these roles?
Sanya: Definitely. I think it’s very important as an actor to not judge. If you’re judging your character, you won’t be able to play them convincingly. And in that process, I don’t think anybody else will be convinced with your performance. So, I never judge my characters. Ever. Like, I never judged Anu. There was nothing to judge her. She had her own journey with her mother, also otherwise realising that she might have been too harsh on her mother. Like after making the film, when Anu becomes a mother, that’s when she realises that maybe she was being too harsh on her mother. And maybe I never saw her as a woman who can have her own journey and her dreams. So that was very special for me. It’s a big learning for all of us who have seen Shakuntala Devi now to not put our mothers on a pedestal and expect them to be perfect because nobody is perfect. So yeah, just like Vidya I think I also never judge my characters. If I feel even a little bit like I will judge a character, I don’t really pick that up. I don’t do it.
In the film we have seen that Shakuntala Devi lied about her husband to sell her book. Is it true?
Vidya: I think she wrote a book about homosexuality and then she kept getting asked, “What is your credibility to be writing a book on homosexuality?” I think she just got fed up of answering that question. And, you know, in the spur of the moment just said, “My ex-husband was homosexual. That’s why.” And it just stuck forever because that makes it personal. That makes it juicy for people to believe. It almost gives it credence. So I think that’s what happened. But
there was no…
Obviously, as you see in the film, there was no truth to it.
Anupama: It was just a marketing technique really, which she resorted to at the time, because it was more like “What gives you the authority to write on it?” She did have friends and all, but she couldn’t just say that. It just kind of stuck after she said it, but she didn’t realize the impact of it.
Ajay: But also what we need to understand is the reason she wanted the book to be read and addressed is because she genuinely believed that, you know, that was the right thing at the time. Not many people had the courage to take up the topic, especially in India. So like they say, a small white lie, or what she perceived as a white lie, to get the better, the greater good was well worth what she thought. You must understand they were also going through a bitter divorce and stuff at that time. So it’s, you know, the punching bag was obvious.
It’s a huge truth to come out when you are doing a film. Anupama, did you and Ajay discuss this before you spoke to Anu about it? That, “Should we talk about this or not? Will this harm her image?” Did you have any questions in your mind?
Ajay: Quite honestly, no. Because the good thing with Anu Menon and Nayanika is that they’re very disarming in the way we spoke and we trusted them. So we trusted to tell the story to them the way it was. And then of course, the four of us sat down and discussed what should be in and shouldn’t be in. But at no stage, I think, Anu and I- because we were not uncomfortable with it. You know, there was nothing uncomfortable. We’re really proud of my mother-in-law. I mean, come on. Seriously. So yeah, we never had a problem at all. No.
Watch the interview to find out more.