BOTTOM LINE: An Overtly Exaggerated Biopic of a Math Genius
Skin and swear: No instances of strong language and on-screen intimacy
|Platform: Amazon Prime||Genre: Drama, Biography|
What Is the Story About?
Shakuntala Devi, the biopic on the mathematical genius, astrologer and writer, is told through the eyes of her rebellious daughter, Anupama Banerjee. The film takes the viewer back to Shakuntala Devi’s conflicted childhood, during which her mathematical abilities were viewed more as a means of living for her conservative family. She was denied a regular upbringing, thanks to her genius. There was nothing ‘normal’ about her life, even as destiny leads her to London where she finds fame, glory much beyond her anticipation. She finds the man of her dreams in an IAS officer Paritosh Banerjee and the two are parents to a daughter soon. Motherhood doesn’t curtail her ambition; her zest to chase her dreams has only multiplied with time. What’s the price that Shakuntala has to pay to live the life of a genius?
Shakuntala Devi is definitely not among Vidya Balan’s best performances – the actress goes a little too far in incorporating her off-screen persona into the role. Unlike most of her recent acts, you see more of Vidya Balan in it than Shakuntala Devi. She’s delightfully poignant in the sequences with her on-screen daughter, but her version of the genius feels more eccentric than intriguing. Her look in the first half-an-hour looks extremely similar to the initial days of Silk in The Dirty Picture.
You come out of the film appreciating Sanya Malhotra more. She surprisingly gets the better-written role; you relate to the character’s concerns, rebellion and the rage and her quest in finding meaning to her life beyond being the daughter of a genius. It’s easily Sanya’s career-best act given how she explores the several layers of her character with great sensitivity and maturity. She has evolved as a performer and how. Jisshu Sengupta gets a half-baked part that lacks enough meat while Amit Sadh is impressive in a brief role. Sheeba Chaddha and Prakash Belawadi are impactful in their blink-and-a-miss appearances.
There’s always a thin line between crafting a colourful character and exaggerating it to be an embodiment of eccentricity. Anu Menon, the director of Shakuntala Devi, is desperate for her character to be cinematically appealing and strips the protagonist of her true identity. The film, by merely trying to imitate her, turns the role into a caricature; so much that the initial portions make you wonder why Vidya Balan is headlining a well-staged spoof. Shakuntala Devi starts on a slippery note, appearing in a hurry to traverse past the major events of its protagonist’s life, perhaps trying to reflect the ambitious nature of its protagonist through its storytelling rather seriously.
For someone who believed mathematics was ‘the only truth in the world’, Shakuntala Devi makes the ‘human computer’ feel like a magician who flashes her bag of tricks in her shows. After all, what could have made a five-year-old come up with an answer to an eight-digit number’s third root? Just like how the scientists fail to come up with a logical explanation to her wizardry, the narrative doesn’t look for deeper answers to this puzzle called Shakuntala Devi. The film is satisfied in being a never-ending saga of shallow show(wo)manship.
The film fares marginally better with the mother-daughter drama. It is terrific while reflecting the complications arising in the lives of Shakuntala Devi’s near and dear through her mathematical pursuits. Shakuntala Devi, the film, particularly focuses on the inner turmoil of a daughter who never gets to live a ‘normal’ childhood (just like Shakuntala Devi), while hopping from location to another with her genius mother sans any rootedness to a location or an emotional centre. You don’t see anything wrong in Shakuntala’s desire to live life on her own terms even while being a mother, and still empathise with the pain of Anupama, her daughter. The film explores this escalating tension sensitively but oversimplifies the issue while tracing its origins. The homosexual angle to the thread surrounding Shakuntala’s ex-husband is left unexplored (it’s not interpretative enough to leave it to a viewer’s imagination either).
Like most Indian biopics, Shakuntala Devi ultimately turns out to be an exercise in white-washing the mathematic genius’ persona – the filmmaker steers away from any attempt to present (or give a basis to) the allegations surrounding her false astrological predictions in the late 70s and the 80s. The film finds its purpose more or less in the last half-hour where the daughter and the mother bury the hatchet. Rather than being awed by Shakuntala Devi, you come to terms more with her daughter’s uneasy journey.
The story moves so cyclically and appears redundant as if to explain the protagonist’s fascination for zero as a number. The non-linear narrative, on certain occasions, is effectively utilised to correlate the life of the mother and daughter; though the biopic is a lost opportunity on most counts. ‘Truth is stranger than fiction’, but it seems like the makers want to conveniently sugarcoat reality to match the gaudiness of a staple Bollywood biopic.
Music and Other Departments?
The background score complements the narrative to a fair extent, neither dominating nor underplaying beyond necessity. It gives enough scope to enhance the impact of the situation, while not trying to make its presence too apparent either. Keiko Nakahara builds the liveliness in the proceedings with her use of bright, vibrant colours reflecting the protagonist’s enthusiasm to live life to the fullest. The writing is inconsistent, the transformation of the characters is sometimes jarring and the makers don’t give themselves enough to justify the potential of the story to the fullest. The editing is extremely imaginative and the structuring of the narrative is one of the film’s major highlights.
Sanya Malhotra’s performance
Terrific technical contributions
Writing in daughter-mother drama segments
Eccentricity in the treatment/portrayal of Shakuntala Devi
Oversimplification of the story
Repetitive beyond a point
Did I Enjoy It?
Only in parts
Will You Recommend It?
Probably for a one-time watch
Shakuntala Devi Review by Binged Bureau
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