“What goes around, comes around” is a very popular quote that indicates that one will not realise the rights and wrongs within them unless they’re on the receiving end. Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi, based on the life of the so-called ‘Human Computer’ is not just about Maths but the complexities and discrepancies that come with living based on your own rules, but at the cost of others’ happiness. A woman who didn’t just bash the social norms, but created her own, however sometimes going a little too far without understanding their drawbacks.
“Bachon ka zindagi bhar apne maa baap par haq hota hai
Par maa baap ka, bachon par nahi hota hai”
In one of the scenes, Paritosh (Jisshu Sengupta) tries to make a stubborn Shakuntala understand how she cannot ruin her daughter’s childhood because of her selfishness. However, at that point, her only redeeming answer is that she has given her that life, and hence she has all the rights on her, one of the many contradictions explored within this film.
The film starts off in prototype biopic fashion. The setting is Bangalore, and we are shown a girl who while playing overhears a difficult math problem and solves it without dropping a sweat. When the father is shown his daughter’s talent, he uses it to earn some money for the house, depriving Shakuntala of her childhood. Shakuntala refuses to listen to or fear any of her parents and asks her mother to consider her the ‘father’ of the house as her idea was that whoever earned the money was the respected elder one, and in their house, it was her. Since the beginning the writer shows her how Shakuntala made her own rules, and had an unusual take against the pre-existing norms of society.
Overtime, Shakuntala grows up to despise her parents for taking away her childhood and her chance at normalcy for their selfish reasons, but hates her mother more because of her inability to speak up against her husband. However, this baggage from her past in a way makes way into her future where she ends up being the same person to her daughter that she otherwise hates. Menon’s writing of this character plays out beautifully as even her selfishness is not completely hated by the audience who know what Shakuntala Devi stands for.
The film’s opening half feels quite standard. A steady uprising of Balan’s character becoming a celebrity. The comic elements during this time bring a smile on the faces of the audience, especially an instance about Indians using drama to do everything in their lives. We see our protagonist taking racist remarks with a smile and surprising everyone with her talent and the way she portrays her talent, in a saree and pigtails. However, there is no real conflict that arises in the film until this time, which may tempt the viewers to forward the film.
The film picks pace when it starts going downward, where it talks about the stubbornness that comes with fame. It also shows us how it blinds the person under the spotlight and that results in consequences for those who are born in this but want a rather normal life. She becomes the same person she hated growing up where she puts her life before her own child and deprives her that normal childhood she wants. She imposes her rules on everyone and also considers that the world will function based on them because ‘she never loses’.
Sanya Malhotra, plays Anu, the daughter of Shakuntala Devi who is tired of being known as her mother’s daughter because she doesn’t want an extraordinary life like hers. Growing up, she is deprived of a normal childhood, like the chance to go to school because her mother is ruling the world, which makes her reach a point where she doesn’t want to ever conceive after her marriage. Malhotra plays a simple, but feisty Anu Banerji, who is a product of her baggage, just like her mother, who is the entire reason for her being the way she is.
Dialogue writer Ishita Moitra nurses Balan with some beautiful dialogues that she delivers with complete confidence and sass. Shakuntala Devi is loud and expressive and has these dialogues that though make her look witty, but sometimes also stubborn, a conscious choice by the writers to show the contradicting layers to the character without any unwanted exposition.
Vidya Balan takes the screen by storm. A perfect fit for this role, Balan effortlessly gets into this character of Shakuntala Devi who is loud, unapologetic, fearless, smart, sassy etc and makes it seem like it’s just how she is in reality. Not only that, she also switches to the vulnerable emotions with ease and rises above everyone else playing a part in this film.
After Waiting (2015), Director Anu Menon returns with Shakuntala Devi, a beautifully layered biopic, not just about achievements of an Indian mathematician, but also about the conflicts that come with stardom onto people not sharing the spotlight.