Arts movie review

The story of a math genius, overly dramatized

Shakuntala Devi in this biopic comes off as an egotistic protagonist

Shakuntala Devi
Directed by Anu Menon
Starring Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Jisshu Sengupta, Amit Sadh
Rated 13+
Streaming on Amazon Prime

Shakuntala Devi, a precocious child and famous mathematician, was a household name to many. Renowned as the “Human Computer,” her name became synonymous with the concept of mathematics. When I first heard about the making of her biopic, I was thrilled to see how her professional and personal life would be portrayed on-screen. After watching the movie, though, I feel very disappointed that it focused on the strained relation between Shakuntala and her daughter Anupama Banerjee rather than Shakuntala’s childhood and achievements.

The movie, narrated from Anupama’s (Sanya Malhotra) point of view, depicts Shakuntala’s (Vidya Balan) journey from a child to a math genius and a mother. Although several math shows and interviews of Shakuntala are shown, the movie fluctuates too much between different timelines. For example, the film frequently transitions between Shakuntala's married life and Anupama’s. These transitions feel confusing, especially given that they do not serve much of a purpose.  

The movie also makes unmotivated changes to factual events in Shakuntala’s life. For instance, the film claims that Shakuntala had been identified as a prodigy at the age of five when she gave the cube root of a number by mental computation, whereas in reality, her potential to memorize card tricks was discovered by her father when she was just three years old! Also, the famous BBC interview that took place when Shakuntala was only 14 where she says the computer gave the wrong answer was shown in the movie to have taken place when she was 26 years old. Although the movie captures these moments, the factual errors are not fair to her legacy and under-represent her brilliance.

A lot of time was spent on dramatizing personal events in Shakuntala’s life using fictionalized moments while other sequences were rushed. Devi’s political campaign could have been shown in more detail rather than glossing over it for a minute. Shakuntala Devi has mentioned in the documentary For Straights Only that she took an interest in writing the book The World of Homosexuals after her marriage to a homosexual man. The movie sharply contradicts this fact by showing that Shakuntala called her husband a homosexual only to popularize her novel. This only serves to portray her as someone who believes that “the ends justify the means,” even if it involves accusing someone wrongly which, in reality, may not have been her nature.  For most of the movie, Shakuntala Devi comes off as a self-centered protagonist who is oblivious to the fact that she is exceptionally egotistic.

However, the movie also has its merits.The film exquisitely illustrates Shakuntala’s multifaceted personality and interests; in addition to being a mathematician, Devi was also an astrologer and writer, and she even tried her hand at politics. As opposed to framing her as a stereotypical nerd, the film portrays Devi as an extroverted person who is the life of the party, just the way she was in real life. The movie also has humorous scenes, like when Shakuntala’s father asks teachers at her math show to give her difficult questions so that she doesn’t get bored! 

The movie definitely strikes home the message that Shakuntala strongly believed in: be who you are and live life to the fullest because life is too short to care about what others think of your actions. The veteran actress Vidya Balan shines in her role, bringing to life the undying spirit of Devi which was far ahead of its time. Sanya Malhotra also does a great job capturing the emotions of a daughter who has a strained and troubled relationship with her mother, which includes always being identified as Shakuntala’s daughter and not as Anupama Banerjee.

Overall, the movie has some brilliant sequences but is highly dramatized and comes off as more focused on a daughter’s resentment towards her mom than the story of Shakuntala Devi herself.