Anu Menon’s film rounds out what can be called the Vidya Balan motherhood trilogy. In 'Tumhari Sulu' (2017), she played a housewife and mother who takes up a job as a late-night radio host. In 'Mission Mangal' (2019), her ingenuity as a homemaker facilitates a scientific breakthrough. And now, in 'Shakuntala Devi', she plays a mathematician whose globe-trotting journey all but cripples her relationship with her daughter.
Out on Amazon Prime, the biopic has the same frolicking quality as the previous two films. Yet, the emotional baggage here is markedly heavy — something the film struggles to carry off till the end. In 1930s Bangalore, a five-year-old Shakuntala is deemed a child prodigy. Her father, a lion tamer and magician, seizes the opportunity, keeping her out of school to perform variety ‘math shows’ across town. Shakuntala grows up without a proper childhood, shadowed by the death of a sibling and the servile silence of her mother. She grows to hate her family, and, after a freak incident with a firearm, flees to London.
There she flourishes into a world-renowned genius, stunning academicians around the world and earning a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records. Shakuntala’s rise as a mathematician, astrologer and author is undercut by her growing struggles as an individual. She reacts unpredictably to heartbreak — with comic intensity or prompt indifference. Her marriage to Paritosh (Jisshu Sengupta), an IAS officer from Calcutta, crumbles when she moves back to London and takes custody of their daughter, Anu. Sanya Malhotra makes a great match for Vidya — their violent blowups diffuse the film’s outwardly feel-good vibe. 'Like Tumhari Sulu', 'Shakunatala Devi' examines the fallout between ambition and maternal duty. It’s a pertinent topic, but the film won’t stop hammering its viewers.
The parallels between Anu and Shakuntala are laid out in bold strokes. They both hate their mothers. They both had troubled childhoods — for opposite reasons. They both marry a supportive husband. “You deserve the Nobel prize for looking after your daughter,” we hear them both retort. When Anu has her own child, she’s assailed by the same parental guilt as her mom. Even for a biopic, this constant nudging gets annoying. Anu Menon and co-writer Nayanika Mahtani celebrate Shakuntala’s individualistic spirit, but do not let Anu grow out of her shadow. Likewise, the lighter moments are a hit-and-miss. Sachin-Jigar’s soundtrack is relentlessly woozy.
The complex number crunching is visualised via pop-up animations (Super 30, another film about a math whiz, ran this trick to the ground). The film retains the mystery of Shakuntala’s lightning-fast brain; in a sequence, scientists run scans on her head and come up short. We are also introduced to her myriad quirks: from her habit of bringing up her C-Section to running a failed election campaign against Indira Gandhi. Skipping between timelines, Vidya rarely loses her poise, throwing her head back and chortling broadly.
“Am I correct?” she asks excitedly from time to time — though the response is clear. It may sound like an odd comparison, but the film reminded me of Hirokazu Kore-eda’s The Truth (2019). In it, Catherine Deneuve and Juliette Binoche play a mother-daughter pair coming to terms with their disparate personalities. Shakuntala Devi charts a similar space, but caves under the same sentimentality it sets out to examine. Like most Hindi films, it strikes out for reconciliation at all costs, ignoring the years of bitterness, hurt and neglect. It paints a bright picture, but not a revealing one.
Director: Anu Menon
Cast: Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Amit Sadh, Jisshu Sengupta
Streaming on: Amazon Prime Video