Shakuntala Devi, about a woman who got to answers quicker than anyone, also arrives at its final product disconcertingly fast. We’ve just been introduced to five-year-old Shakuntala, playing in front of her home in Bangalore in 1934, when she solves a cube root of an eight-digit number. “The answer just appeared," she says matter-of-factly. “This is no ordinary girl, she's a genius," someone says in the seventh minute. So much for an origin story.
An inordinate amount of foreshadowing follows. Shakuntala is made to skip school and earn as a kind of performing maths prodigy by her father. Her mother tells her, “One day your daughter will give you a hard time". Her sister, Sharda, tells her she’ll be a big man someday, because there’s no such thing as a big woman. Having fulfilled her purpose, Sharda dies of an illness in the next scene, leaving Shakuntala with lifelong resentment against her father, who did nothing to prevent the death, and her mother, who didn’t protest when her husband did nothing.
The real Shakuntala Devi was certainly a genius, someone who could answer impossibly difficult mathematical questions in seconds, and whose books helped generations of students overcome their fear of the subject. Yet, the film struggles to make this sort of natural talent come alive on screen. The main problem is, from her appearance on stage at a Bangalore gentlemen’s club to her calculating the 23rd root of a 201 digit number faster than a computer, she’s always in control, answering questions quickly and with a laugh. What’s the fun in seeing someone get things right all the time? The numbers may dance on the screen as they did in A Beautiful Mind, but Shakuntala is the anti-John Nash, her gift bringing her nothing but joy.
It’s only when the film—directed by Anu Menon, who made the spiky, moving Waiting in 2015—starts focusing on areas of Shakuntala’s life where she isn’t in control that it finds some purpose. She has a daughter with Paritosh (Jisshu Sengupta), a thoughtful, accommodating IAS officer, and for a while gives up her lucrative stage shows. But she misses the adulation and, on her husband’s urging, resumes her travels. She finds she can’t live without her daughter either, and brings her to London. She starts taking her everywhere, cutting her off from her father. “You’re stealing her childhood like your father stole yours," says Paritosh, long after the viewer has made that connection.
As the film switches between the lives of Shakuntala and the grown-up Anu (Sanya Malhotra), it becomes an examination of the choices before ambitious women who are mothers, and the compromises they make. Anu has grown to resent her mother for her dominance as Shakuntala resented hers for her silence. Two of the best scenes are domestic squabbles triggered by this thorny relationship; the flare-up of anger in Anu’s otherwise mild husband, Ajay (Amit Sadh), is startlingly lifelike, while Paritosh telling his wife she’s been abandoning Anu has the unfortunate ripple effect of Shakuntala keeping her daughter close for the rest of her childhood.
Menon and Nayanika Mahtani’s screenplay jumps back and forth in time distractingly, muddying rather than clarifying the emotional journeys. Ishita Moitra’s dialogue is done no favours by Balan throwing her head back and laughing in every scene. Shakuntala’s catchphrase is “Vidya kasam", a meta-reference which, even if drawn from Devi's life, should have been avoided. The early parts of the film, when Shakuntala is just becoming famous, are a slalom course of bad accents and flat humour. Shakuntala tells someone who comments on her pigtails, “Joke also Indian man in dhoti with stick." Joke also writing this simplistic.
Shakuntala Devi does allow its protagonist room to be selfish and shallow along with kooky and brilliant, but all the deep-seated emotional trauma is handled in a manner that’s hurried and facile. At a gathering to promote her book about homosexuality, Shakuntala says she grew interested in the subject because her ex-husband is gay. When Anu asks her how she can lie like that, she says that personal stories sell better and a little embellishment doesn’t hurt. Years later, when Anu confronts her father about why he let her mother keep them apart, he just says, “To love Shakuntala is to let her be. She’s like a storm."
This is a film in love with parallels. Shakuntala is made to skip school, then makes her daughter skip school. Shakuntala becomes like her father, Paritosh is like Shakuntala’s mother, Ajay is like Paritosh. Two of Shakuntala’s relationships end with a man telling her she doesn’t need him. Shakuntala pushes Paritosh during an argument; her daughter pushes her during another. Most gratingly, Shakuntala and Anu both find out their mothers cared about them through old scrapbooks. All this emotional rhyming and the breathless rush of events cannot obscure the fact that this film never finds a way to make its protagonist’s genius interesting.
Shakuntala Devi is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.