In recent years, the Hindi film mainstream has become more proactive about telling the stories of notable women. This new one follows on the heels of last October’s crowdpleasing Saand Ki Aankh, which centred on sharpshooting sisters-in-law, but explores with far greater force its subject’s idiosyncrasies. What results is a biopic with genuine character.
The feats described here are mental: the eponymous heroine, Shakuntala Devi (Vidya Balan), was a phenomenal, Guinness World Records-noted mathematician who performed for many decades in the 20th century under the stage name the Human Computer. Director Anu Menon approaches her, however, from the unusual angle of Devi’s daughter, Anu (Sanya Malhotra), first seen marching into a London lawyers’ chambers in 2001 to initiate criminal proceedings against mum for failing to provide for her. While the case is pending, the thoughtful script (by Menon, Nayanika Mahtani and Ishita Moitra) fills in the brainiac’s backstory.
Born into poverty in Bangalore, Devi is obliged to flee India after shooting a no-good suitor, eventually landing in postwar Britain, where a Spanish Henry Higgins (Luca Calvani) helps to polish her broken English.
Hot from streaming hit Four More Shots Please!, Menon has immense fun with the period re-creation, bouncing between hemispheres, timeframes and wardrobes while underlining a growing distance between mother and child, crystallised by a lyric in one of Sachin-Jigar’s fine songs (“You’re like a puzzle I’ve always tried to solve”). Maths is only one touchstone; another would be that run of women’s pictures from Mildred Pierce to Mommie Dearest.
The material yields an all-shotguns-blazing performance from Balan, one of the few Bollywood stars seemingly smart enough to memorise 12-digit integers. Her Devi bends equations and men alike to her will, refusing to conform whether flaunting her caesarean scar as a maternal badge of honour or – in a remarkably relaxed, enlightened sidebar – writing the 1977 tome The World of Homosexuals.
Balan casts a formidable shadow, but Malhotra emerges from it with credit, quietly affecting as a more conventional personality who found she could only rebel against a trailblazing parent by pushing even further into domesticity. The movie finds funny ways of dramatising the process whereby one generation of women squares its frustrations with another – but it adds up to spirited, intelligent, authentically feminist entertainment.
• Shakuntala Devi is available on Amazon Prime Video from 31 July.
Source: The Guardian