By Neeraj Nanda
SHANKTULA DEVI, Hindi, 2h 7m, 2020; Director Anu Menon; Starring Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Jisshu Sengupta; Genere Drama; Subtitles English
MELBOURNE: Shanktula Devi, the wonder mathematical genius came to my school probably in the late 60s for a show, which made me crazy about her speed of calculations. A few teachers (probably including the Math teacher) shouted at her towards the end of the show and it was abruptly ended. They were upset at being humiliated (a presumption) by her being a woman and a declared genius. Me myself not good in Maths never forgot her but she faded in my memory as I pushed ahead in life. I had no idea about her life or her struggles.
At a senior age now seeing Shanktula Devi on the small screen I feel elated at her achievements and her coming to my school. Her extraordinary story, her struggles as a human and as a woman forms the rather zig-zag path to glory. When she becomes a mother and her career as a mathematical celebrity the strains of society become visible, but she says, ” Kya Maa Banne Ke Baad Aurat Ka Dimag Chalna Band Ho Jata Hai”, quite liberating in her times. And, her oft-repeated dialogue, “I never lose”.
Her husband is gay and (we are told) she later wrote a book on the subject, a taboo subject in ‘sanskari’ India. What, in reality, the film focusses on is her relationship with her daughter, who herself is trying to be herself and be independent of her mother’s shadow of a celebrity. The mother’s and daughter’s struggles independent of each other and the contradiction of their relationship are beautifully crafted in the movie. The humanization in both the women is evident but tense. Maybe, that is what life is.
The movie clearly reflects how Shanktula Devi lived on her own terms of battling with society. Vidya Balan gives a sterling performance. Maybe, she always shines in a biopic. I attended her recent IFFM Film Club interview (on Zoom) by Rajeev Masand, where she said, ” I hope the best content comes to me. I have no idea or plans, but I am crazy to do a biopic on Sridevi”. Any producer listening?
Other actors in the movie sail smoothly with astute direction. At times Vidya Balan looks similar in different stages of Shakuntala Devi’s age. Plus, for international audiences, the movie can be a bit shorter. The movie on Amazon Prime means it can be seen globally. The pandemic has impacted the movie industry. It’s a different cinema experience compared to a cinema hall. As Vidya, herself says, ” OTT streaming will have an impact on mainstream cinema. It’s going to change things but theaters are there to stay. Both streaming and theatres will work.”
This biopic movie should be seen for its content, which encompasses issues still plaguing the 21st century. I give this movie three out of five stars.