Shakuntala Devi: Exploring The Human Behind The Human Computer

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Shakuntala Devi
Image courtesy: amazon.com
4 min read

Shakuntala Devi, unmatched in the wit and intelligence on the basis of which she earned world-wide fame, is someone most of us know surprisingly little about beyond the ‘Human Computer’ label. A large percentage of the information and material available on Shakuntala Devi has ironically been produced abroad, and not by Indians. Director Anu Menon, and Vidya Balan pay a long due homage to the woman behind the big smile and the even bigger brain with the biopic, Shakuntala Devi.  

Biopics about geniuses have been churned out in abundance – but biopics on female geniuses are few and far between, even when female geniuses themselves are not. Filmmakers and audiences alike have developed a fascination for the clever, tortured, and “misunderstood” man. Shakuntala Devi is none of those things. She is indulgent of her own intelligence, uninhibited and ambitious, self-assured and selfish, flamboyant and loud, a woman and a mother.

The film is not interested in treating its protagonist with reverence. It displays in close-up frames every selfish thought that passes across Devi’s face – and there are several -, and lets her laugh out brash comments, and yell scathing remarks. It is as unapologetic about exploring an unlikeable heroine, as Shakuntala Devi is of everything she does – and that in itself is a win. 

A Woman’s Career Or Her Children – Devi Questions Why It Has To Be One Or The Other

The biopic provides a limited insight into Shakuntala Devi’s mind and backstory. In a hurried origin story, little Shakuntala resents her father for treating her like a means to earn income, is enraged with her mother for silently standing by, and when her sister muses that Shakuntala will one day become a “bada aadmi”, she vows to become a “badi aurat” instead. When questioned how she can answer complex math questions so quickly, she shrugs that the answer “just appeared.”

It is clear that a more fleshed out insight into Devi’s mind was difficult, as the film is based on Shakuntala Devi’s daughter, Anu’s, perception and knowledge of her mother’s life. The film then, understandably, focuses largely on Shakuntala Devi’s fraught relationship with her daughter.

In the midst of wowing audiences with her mental math skills and putting chauvinistic people in their place, Devi tries her hand at being a wife and mother. Unable to let go of her passion for math and her hunger for recognition, however, she decides to continue pursuing a career. She travels far and wide, performing “math shows” on stage for an audience. When questioned how she can continue with her math shows after becoming a mother, she laughs, “Do women lose their brains after becoming mothers?”

Image courtesy: amazon.com

Frustrated at having to stay away from her daughter during these travels, however, she begins to take her along with her.

She doesn’t understand why she must sacrifice her dreams as a woman to be able to love as a mother.

As a mother she is fiercely protective and loving, but equally imperfect and selfish – unconsciously depriving her daughter of a childhood the same ways she believes her parents did.

Anu begins to resent her mother for tearing her away from her father, for focusing on her career, and for the very same ambitious and self-indulgent behaviour that Devi initially developed in an attempt to be nothing like her “weak” and silent mother.   

The film tries to touch upon the idea of intergenerational trauma – how we pass on our own flawed and unhealed patterns onto our children, unconsciously repeating the injustices we experienced.

However, in creating a simple and neatly packaged resolution, where, through a few token dramatic acts, all is suddenly well, the film does injustice to the complexities of human relationships and the resolution of childhood trauma. 

The resolution feels contrived and fake, a little bit of a forced happy ending, but even in that, it still shows us what huge chasms lie and what circuitous paths must be tread before women can truly have it all.

When Anu becomes a mother, she is told by her friends that being a mother, she must have only one dream – her baby. A friend tells her that after she took her second maternity leave, she thought, “’Let it go. I can always pick up a job later.’ My children needed me. And I don’t think it’s a sacrifice. Yeh toh meri duty hai.”

A woman can choose either role, as a career-oriented woman or a mother, or neither, without shame. The idea, however, of motherhood being a woman’s “duty” is deeply internalised in our patriarchal society, to the extent that women themselves believe that being a mother at the cost of your career is the more “noble” and right thing to do. As Anu confesses to her mother “ “Meine humesha aap ko “maa” ki tarah dekha. Ek aurat ki tarah dekha hi nahi.” 

Image courtesy: youtube.com

There is a choice the woman is expected to make between the home and the world. Shakuntala Devi refuses to feel guilty about wanting to take her home along with her into the world. She falters constantly in how she balances her career in rationality and numbers, with her emotions as a mother, but refuses to be apologetic for trying. 

The Film Humanises And Highlights The Imperfections In The “Perfect” Human Computer

The film tends to indulge heavily in drama, is imperfect, and (coincidentally) OTT, but seems to intentionally do this to break out of the machine-akin shell that history has fit Shakuntala Devi into. There is even a dialogue in the film that seems largely self-aware of itself– “Personal stories sell better and a little embellishment doesn’t hurt.”

Despite, or possibly through, all the dramatic flairs and “melodrama”, the film explores both the human behind the human computer, and the woman behind the mathematical genius.  

The film is now available for streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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Sanjana writes far too little to call herself a writer and reads far too much pop-culture fiction to call herself a reader. She once received a Special Mention for the Best Young Critic Award by MAMI, and refuses to stop talking about it. Her love for films, art, and theatre runs deep and is only borderline pretentious. She detests writing in third person but can be convinced to engage in it occasionally.

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