What's wrong with the film 'Shakuntala Devi'?

Whats wrong with the film Shakuntala Devi?

When was a biopic ever released without controversy following it? The much talked about film ‘Shakuntala Devi’ enacted by the much-acclaimed Vidya Balan in the lead, too, has had its share of criticism

When was a biopic ever released without controversy following it? The much talked about film 'Shakuntala Devi' enacted by the much-acclaimed Vidya Balan in the lead, too, has had its share of criticism.

Some called it too much drama that was somehow clouding the brilliance of the legendary mathematician, and that the film concentrated on her being a woman caught in the conflict and struggle as a mother, and that diluted the rise of the legend and mathematics. Dramatic it is! The film has perfectly captured the simple life of an Indian girl, the male-dominate family set up, where a woman hardly voices her opinion. To such a mother married at a young age was born Shakuntala, who had an amazing skill to simplify any complicated mathematical problem, and solve it in seconds. A father, who did not work, saw her extraordinary capability and he began to use this to earn money. The child genius was paraded in schools to showcase her skill during Maths shows. So busy she got with such shows that she hardly attended school.

What was not shown in the movie was the absolute poverty the family went through which left no chance for her education in a school, to begin with. Shakuntala's elder sister dies of illness and lack of medical care, and gradually she distances herself from her family, which she feels is only exploitative of her. She felt for a long time that her mother did not love her, and promises to herself she will become the best mother to her child.

On one occasion when she throws tantrums as a child, her mother says how Shakunthala will understand when her own daughter begins to trouble her and fate does catch up. In a bid to provide extreme attention and overwhelming love, Shakuntala Devi does end up raising a child who becomes increasingly bitter for keeping her away from her father and a normal childhood, and decides she will never become like her mother when she grows up. The iconic mathematician who by then has bagged the title, 'Human Computer' and is traveling across the world earning a hell lot of money and buying houses tags her daughter wherever she goes, all this while not thinking that she with her excessive love is doing exactly what her father did – denying her child of many small pleasures. In one scene her ex-husband Paritosh Banerjee tells her – you are becoming your father – to which she vehemently denies.

"Why do I have to be normal when I can be brilliant' was her philosophy and she always tells her daughter to look beyond the ordinary. Eventually, her daughter Anupama realises her folly of misunderstanding her mother's excessive love for her, but only after she becomes a mother; almost ending the film on a clichéd note. However, along the way it does bring forth for us audience; the real person behind a popular name; the lively, spirited, and positive woman, whose rags to riches story has inspired many, and whose unassuming progressive attitude would put many from even the current generation to shame.

And that brings us to the book that she wrote and had it published in the year 1977 – 'The World of Homosexuals'. She has written many books on astrology and Maths. But this book and several like these also came from her writing-table. Back then when the issue of same-sex relations was a taboo and there was not much discourse around on the issue, the mathematician, who was by then also proclaiming to be an astrologer, wrote this investigation-based book that included interviews, and the book appeals for a compassionate view of the community. A review of the book in a Journal of Homosexuality published by Taylor and Francis says it is unique for being the first educational book on the subject in independent India, and it draws from several scholarly books, quotes studies and research, in the context of the West and the limited reference in India.

She presents her feminist perspective (her strong feministic view is abundantly explored in the film) when she says how the study of female homosexuality is limited and how both male and female homosexuals are victims to male heterosexual dominance and patriarchy.

In the film, which is said to be based on the inputs from the daughter, there is a scene that indicates she has lied during a press conference that her former husband (Paritosh) is gay. This, she says in the film, she does to give a personal touch so that people will accept her revolutionary and important book, and view it seriously if they think it's coming from experience.

After becoming aware of this probability, will the homosexual community that had put her on a pedestal for being a hero, will now feel cheated. The fact whether she has lied or not does in no way change the importance of the book, and its continuing relevance in the present context too, and does not surely take away from her genius.

The film 'Shakuntala Devi' has actress Vidya Balan in the lead, and her enacting of the enigmatic and charismatic legend brings alive the person behind the personality.

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