Vidya Balan as an actor is amazing. She’s so powerful that she actually pumps — dwarfing anyone around her in the case of this film. There’s also a woman who ruled as a thunderstorm, lived unexciting and on her own terms, ending up with and overcoming the consequences. Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi biology is apt, then. She wasn’t merely swept away by social expectations, she vigorously fought against them, going perhaps a little too far for her own good.
Shakuntala Devi starts out in a template-biopic way and develops the girl’s ability to mathematically solve complex problems in an efficient way. The film also explains Shakuntala ‘s childhood neglect and abuse faced by her father. In a shock to generations of Indians, which bought many books on puzzles and numbers. For she’s serving her husband she grows up to scorn both her parents and her brother. Later, the relationship she has with her daughter, and the tension between being the ideal parent and wanting to globetrotter and enjoying her own success, is described as a significant marker.
The first half of the film is breezy, funny, natural, but it is a joy to watch Menon treat her heroine just like male geniuses were seen on the screen for decades. The film then charts the growth of Shakuntala as a star in London, where she chuckled at her own performance, making snazzy jokes where she laughed loudest, from one sold-out event to another packed one. She is a rock star, a science figure who identifies with ‘scientist’s characters, a fascinating change from stereotypes. Your highest last? The expression of astonishment on white faces and the topic that still clouds her: how do you?
It’s also when you start to feel restless as Vidya Balan tries to find a point of contention, though it’s a pleasure to watch and electrify the stage. There is no real barrier on Shakuntala ‘s path, with a few racist rejections, till the first hour of the film is over. Her emergence from obscurity into ubiquity almost seems predetermined because there is no real representation of combat. And if this were the true life of the dispute, a victory here would have given her a steadier diagram.
The film continues to look at the pitfalls of success and discusses what happens if it penetrates into the lives of those who were born into it but did not want it. Shakuntala Devi is raging and wrathful and enduring a messy relationship between daughter and mom, a left dynamic pitifully unfunded in many of Hindi cinemas (the relationship between father and son is far more pleasant).
Though Shakuntala herself was deprived of a “natural” childhood, by micro-administering her childhood she repeats the same fault that she robs her not only of her usual childhood but of an identity independent of her outsized shadow. She imposes her lifestyle on her daughter as the only way to live a childhood and dismisses her agency which all become a powerful material for investigating more comprehensive themes such as legacy, and the fact that parents become a criterion of success (and failure) for their children.
Sanya Malhotra, who plays the daughter Anu Banerji, has a calm presence that masks the turmoil within. The actor, who excelled in Ritesh Batra’s Photograph, captures her character’s anguish and helplessness with a measured ease. However, I was surprised at one aspect of her character: she’s shown as someone who is rigidly against having a child but when she does end up conceiving (unplanned), her reservations melt away as if they never existed. It feels like a lazy copout. This isn’t to say that she could not have changed her mind but to do so within seconds of the pregnancy being detected when you’ve protested against any mention of an offspring before, reflects a slight recklessness on part of the film’s writing.
“Why do men always want women to need them” is a dialogue that’s repeated twice in the film. It’s an interesting query and becomes a sharp entry point into examining the role of men in Shakuntala Devi’s life. She had a difficult marriage but the film ensures that it points out that this wouldn’t be the case if it was the man who had to move continents for a job. It’d be expected that the whole clan would anchor themselves wherever the man had to be. This strand emerges again at a later stage and is resolved neatly in the end with the realization that it ultimately boils down to the ability to make the choice, something Shakuntala Devi is blind towards given her own past and despite her own independent spirit.
Unintended, it catches another thing: the performative wakening of people on the Internet. The husband of Shakuntala, Paritosh Banerji, seems progressive, but as we know later, there are a variety of ‘limitations.’ The film goes a step further and underlines the perception that so-called woke people are waking up until they have a disadvantage. The minute that ‘change’ and ‘compromise’ are aimed at them, as Sima aunty would say, we’d run away. You can do nothing easily than genuinely follow the ideals you claim to be the champion.
Although the visual and auditory palette of the film is high and cheerful, as if to emulate Shakuntala’s own trajectory and actions, emotional disputes scenery might have been more successful if seen with an understated view.
Shakuntala is clearly a version of her own family, unconsiders the feelings of alienation of her daughter, and puts herself first without any expository dialogue. However, this tacit sentiment is then articulated in a dramatic confrontation.
She is here!!— vidya balan (@vidya_balan) July 30, 2020
Meet #ShakuntalaDeviOnPrime now!!!@PrimeVideoIN#FirstDayFirstStream@sanyamalhotra07 @Jisshusengupta @TheAmitSadh @anumenon1805 @sonypicsprodns @vikramix @Abundantia_Ent @ShikhaaSharma03 pic.twitter.com/hzjfJRKhkk
The dialog is sweet and funny by Ishita Moitra, and Balan throws out those lines with immense sass, making every word like the world’s most hilarious joke. But when Balan is not speaking, it slips frequently in a dialog-baazi room. It has proven to be loud and vibrant, self-celebrating, and self-deprecating with Shakuntala. The same approach does not work on others, however.
Malhotra Anu informs her husband after Shakuntala sends them a notice of law: “She wanted a fight, now she’s going to be warfare.” Now, this is the kind of line in a K sequence. That is the kind of line. The imagination of such an unforgiving verbose explosion is disorientating and it removes you from the world of the film. The spectator feels the need for delicacy, as the movie becomes more and more introspective, cacophonous. The end, too, is somewhat rude. I felt at the shot as a group of exasperated legal professionals repeated “moms and daughters.”
And while Jisshu Sengupta is mostly on the right track, he seems to have slept through his section. The hope maybe that he’s a foil that compensates for the open-mindedness of Shakuntala, but he’s sparkling and drab.
Given these problems, Shakuntala Devi is an eminently attractive film, a drama that faithfully portrays a rare genius’ challenging, complicated and contradictory life that loved so many that she could barely see beyond them. She sued her own daughter just thought she was.