shakuntala

Vidya Balan plays the human computer Shakuntala Devi. (poster via IANS)

When a biopic shows you very “filmy” over-dramatized sequences, you wonder if that’s a fictional part inserted. Because in what is shown in a biopic, both life and truth can be stranger than fiction. In a film like this, however, we come to know that needless fiction has been inserted, and facts removed equally minus reason.

And all this only in the cause of supposed gender equality. When a certain real selfishness, conceit (and the insecurity that comes with it) and a ‘I me myself” attitude is highlighted as “Being what you are” and “A human being rather than just a mother,” we can only think that the three women who have written the film are overdoing the equality game.

A human being, however much a genius, is still fallible in some ways, and highlighting those shortcomings is praiseworthy for a biopic. A biopic that is also written in consultation with the genius’ daughter, but we wonder why some facts were so much twisted or ignored.

For example, we have doubts even about the ear-shooting incident (No spoilers please!). Shakuntala’s father was a circus artiste, and that is not shown at all. Instead of showing that she moved in with her father to London at the age of 15, we see her deriding and later hating her mother for not standing up in front of her husband who lives off her income, and leaving her family and going off to London alone. Her parents are shown as selfish people who need her to send money to support them.

Similarly, we are not sure anymore, having never read a detailed account of her life, whether there was a Javier (Luca Calvani) really in her life, and there seems to be a lot of dramatization /over-fictionalization in the angle of Shakuntala’s marriage to Paritosh Banerjee (Jisshu Sengupta) and whatever followed with her then-moppet daughter Anupama (Sanya Malhotra in adult life).

Suffice to say two things here: one, that Shakuntala’s real daughter has reportedly loved the biopic the way it has shaped up, and two, that as a film watch, it is enjoyable and crisp, even if the sequences seem to be hastily moving from one mini-sequence or story to the next within 125 minutes, and the lines that connect these narrative dots are not really dwelt upon. Yes, we are speaking numbers too.

The film begins with young Shakuntala in 1934 (she was born in 1929), whose gifts are realized by her father. Shakuntala is never sent to a school (“You can teach the school, they cannot teach you anything!” says her father, as if school is only about Arithmetic!), but starts doing shows pronto.

She moves to London alone, travels the world soon, and after a series of maths triumphs and earning money enough to buy a huge house in London, moves to Kolkata when she decides to marry Paritosh, who she meets at a party. After she gives birth to a daughter, her craving for her shows returns and she is back to global travel, initially without her daughter who is a tot, and later with her. There is never a thought given to her husband’s closeness to their child.

Matters come to a head when the grown-up Anupama is also not schooled and craves for a normal life, school and dad. Later, she also meets Ajay (Amit Sadh) and marries him, but she hates her mother by now and angrily decides never to be a mom herself. But she does conceive and after the birth of her daughter, a lot of things happen.

Vidya Balan owns the film as rarely before in her best movies. Remove her from this film and you will probably lose the entire connect. She is so believable in the various positive, negative, headstrong and self-centered shades of Shakuntala that this must rank as another major triumph for this actress. Sanya Malhotra impresses as Anupama and Amit Sadh in the low-key role of Ajay is good too. Jisshu Sengupta seems a shade over-the-top, but maybe that was the director’s brief.

The rest of the actors are good, and the kids playing Shakuntala at various stages are good too, especially the young girl (Araina Nand) with whom the film opens.

Sachin-Jigar’s music is passable but not memorable, though the end-credits song “Pass NahinTo Fail Nahin” is well-composed and well-written (Vayu) and rendered (Sunidhi Chauhan). However, its contemporary production curtails its impact and shelf-life. Karan Kulkarni’s background score and Keiko Nakahara’s cinematography are two more highlights. Ishita Moitra’s lines are crisply fabulous and director Menon handles the film well overall, especially the Maths sequences.

On the streaming platform, after the niche delight “Kadakh,” this is the only other film that you can watch as of now, that too as a wholesome family entertainer. It is breezy and fun, if not classic. And I have already recounted the reasons why it does not reach that level. But so what? It’s still worth a watch with all its flaws, and in that it resembles the persona of “The Human Computer,” as Shakuntala Devi was known!

Rating: ***1/2

Produced by: Sony Pictures Networks & Vikram Malhotra

Directed by: Anu Menon

Written by: Anu Menon, Nayanika Mahtani & Ishita Moitra

Music: Sachin-Jigar

Starring: Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Amit Sadh, Jisshu Sengupta, Spandan Chaturvedi, Araina Nand, Prakash Belawadi, Chahat Tewani,Sheeba Chadha, Luca Calvani, Ipshita Chakraborty Singh, Jiya Shah, Neil Bhoopalam, Renuka Sharma & others

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