Vidya Balan & Sanya Malhotra are terrific but the writing of Amazon Prime’s Shakuntala Devi is clumsy

Shakuntala Devi, the film, is a wasted opportunity, but also a reminder that no degree of clumsy writing can stop Vidya Balan and Sanya Malhotra from performing…

The reason why Nandita Das’s biopic on Sadat Hasan Manto was such a brilliant film is that it never studied his life in its entirety, but rather a part of it. When it comes to biopics, even those like Mary Kom, Neerja, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, the reason why they too work is that these are human stories of achievement. While Shakuntala Devi is a miracle, more than a human, her biopic is short of that. And one of the biggest contributing reasons for the same is that director Anu Menon’s (and writers Nayanika Mahtani and Ishita Moitra) ambition is too big, but their canvas is small. With a runtime of 2 hours and 6 minutes, Shakuntala Devi is a perfect length film, but Devi’s life and Menon’s film have too many component and themes and phases to fit into one single film. It would’ve been a wonderful film had it been about a part of Devi’s life. But what we get is little bit of part of her entire life.

Shakuntala Devi was a woman of power – a genius, gifted mathematician, an astrologer, a short stint at politics, a best-selling author. Anu Menon covers it all, and also the fact that she is a mother. We see from the very start that Devi wants to become a mother more than anything. She says, “Mujhe maths se bahut pyaar hai, magar Anu se usse zyaada hai,” while she talks to her husband about her daughter. This is what the film looks like on paper. And perhaps it seemed like a good idea, but the writing of Shakuntala Devi is so clumsy and flimsy that what might have looked like a genius film on paper, didn’t really live up to expectations on screen. And I’m not talking about the audience’s expectations, but those of the makers and actors, and probably even the real life Anupama Banerji (Devi’s daughter).

Vidya Balan in Shakuntala Devi
Vidya Balan in and as Shakuntala Devi; Source: Prime Video

Instead of focussing on the drawbacks of coloured people against the white world, Menon chooses to talk about Devi as “a girl in two chotis”. We never get to see what it took Shakuntala Devi to become ‘the’ Shakuntala Devi. And hence, it’s difficult to invest in her journey.

The narrative of the film moves between two timezones. Vidya Balan is incharge of one and Sanya Malhotra of the other. Not to take away anything from Shakuntala Devi, but I found more meat in Anupama’s (Malhotra) life than I did in Devi’s. And I felt that this is because not for a single second does Menon’s film probe into what it takes to be ‘the’ Shakuntala Devi, what it feels like to be born with a rare gift. It touches upon the various aspects of Devi’s life not once does it talk about the insecurities of Devi as a woman searching for work in 1950s London. It talks about her insecurities, her adamant nature as a mother but never as a genius. The film itself explains this failure towards the end, when Anu tells Devi that she has perhaps seen Devi only as a mother and never as a woman. In the beginning of the film, Shakuntala promises her sister that there will be a day when she will become a big woman. “Main bada aadmi nahi, badi aurat banungi,” she says, but we never get to see her as a woman, and what we see of her as a mathematician is only on surface level.

Menon’s writing does probe into motherhood, and there is some beautiful writing in the writing of the relationship between mother and daughter, but otherwise the film doesn’t excite you. Imagine, a film on the genius of Shakuntala Devi fails to excite one! What a wasted opportunity.

Vidya Balan in Shakuntala Devi-2
Vidya Balan and Sanya Malhotra in stills from the film; Source: Prime Video

Shakuntala Devi’s skill with numbers earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records and turned her into a globe-trotting celebrity, doing shows all over the world. One such show was at BBC, where she claimed that the computer had asked the wrong question. She was made fun of and dismissed only to have newspapers call her “The Human Computer” the very next morning after facts were checked. Both the moments — the BBC interview and the Guinness Book of World Records — are defining moments in Devi’s life. But in the film they come only in passing. The former is given a little bit of extra advantage, but there’s little celebration.

When I watched the trailer, I was very curious as to how did Devi deal with sexism and racism in London. Both these stigmas still exist in society. It would have been a living nightmare to be a woman of colour in England in the 1950s. But alas, the film casually ignores these hurdles. Instead of focussing on the drawbacks of coloured people against the white world, Menon chooses to talk about Devi as “a girl in two chotis”. We never get to see what it took Shakuntala Devi to become ‘the’ Shakuntala Devi. And hence, it’s difficult to invest in her journey. You invest in her as a mother, because those ups and downs are a part of the film, but never in the genius that she was.

 Imagine, a film on the genius of Shakuntala Devi fails to excite one! What a wasted opportunity. 

But inspite of a weak script, Vidya Balan shines. It takes an actor as secure, natural and talented as Vidya Balan to do what she has done with a script like this. Lazy writing is at the helm of Shakuntala Devi, but that does not come in the way for Balan. She rises above the script and gives another breathtaking performance. As Devi, she’s insecure, arrogant, helpless, proud, confident — all of it at once. Whenever I see Balan perform, I wonder will we ever see an actor as gifted as Balan. It may be my love for her speaking, but she is phenomenal.

Walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Vidya Balan is Sanya Malhotra. You’ve seen her in Dangal, you’ve seen her in Badhaai Ho, but have you seen her in Photograph? That is a performance to look out for, and so is her act in Shakuntala Devi. As a confused, left-out child-girl-woman, Malhotra is just perfect. It is Anu’s relationship with Shakuntala and Malhotra’s chemistry with Balan that drives this film. Their relationship as mother-daughter is beautiful. I would’ve loved to watch a film just on this relationship, but sadly, that’s not what we get.

Vidya Balan and Sanya Malhotra
Vidya Balan and Sanya Malhotra in a still from the film; Source: Prime Video

What also doesn’t work for the film is the amount of glamour in it. This is not a runway. This is a story about an ordinary woman with extraordinary skills. Devi took real pride in wearing her sarees, in her plaits, and that was an essence of who she was as a person and how she broke patriarchal norms. Even though at one point in the film Balan does say that her saree is going nowhere, it’s not given enough importance. Like other things, this too goes by in passing.

Jab amazing ho sakti hoon toh normal kyun banu?” That’s a question Vidya Balan’s Shakuntala asks Sanya Malhotra’s Anu. I really wish the entire film was as amazing as this dialogue. Maybe then I would’ve been invested in the genius of a genius.

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