WTF ASIA 258: Shakuntala Devi (2020)

The human computer wants to party party party.

Available in AustraliaCanadathe United Kingdomthe United States, and perhaps a few other countries. Approximately 127 minutes.


Whoa whoa whoa. Calm down, Aaron Sorkin. I get it.

Okay. It is 2001. London. As Anupama “Anu” Banerji is riding in a taxi, her voiceover ruminates on the concept of mothers, what they mean to individuals and in a societal sense. And how her mother is different from that. And how today, she is…filing a criminal case against her own mother.

WHAT? Is this how we are starting the movie? Look, I was kidding about the Aaron Sorkin thing, but…

Okay, well…Anu is accusing her mother, world famous mathematician Shakuntala Devi, of illegally trying to destroy her financial standing. She meets with her husband and her lawyer, as well as the mediator, Mr. Graham. Mr. Graham tells her that if her case succeeds, her mother may be looking at a jail sentence. He asks if she really wants to go through with this. Anu pauses, but says yes. As they walk to the meeting, Anu remembers how her mother had torn her away from everyone whom she had loved. And Anu is determined to go to war, even if it means going to war with the great Shakuntala Devi.

It is 1934. Bangalore. Five-year-old Shakuntala is jumping up and down the stairs as her older cousin is trying to figure out the cube root of 16777216. She offhandedly throws out 256, claiming that it is the answer to his problem. He dismisses her, but then checks it out. She was correct. He asks how she did it, and she says that it comes naturally. He calls her a liar. When she denies it, he demands that she explain. She offers to show him…for candy. He promises money.

Shakuntala’s cousin writes down two 5-digit numbers and has her multiply them. She visualizes the numbers around her and gives her answer within fifteen seconds.

Shakuntala’s cousin rushes her to her family’s house to show them what she did. Of course, her mother immediately assumes that she got into trouble. But he writes down the number 134217728 and tells Shakuntala to find the square root. She refuses to do so until he pays up…for this one and the other one. He says that she is more mercenary than the British Raj, but he pays her.  Within maybe eight seconds, she says 512, also saying that that is the cube of 8. She doesn’t say that 8 is the cube of 2, but that might cost extra and she wants to go buy some candy. She runs off as her cousin tells her father that she is a genius.

Shakuntala’s father takes her to a school…to show her off in front of the students and teachers. Shakuntala is a little shy…no, just kidding, she is smug as heck. She asks the room for math problems. Her father tells the teachers that they may ask as well, and requests that the questions be difficult so that she doesn’t get bored. One of the teachers asks her to find the cube root of 1,412,467,848. Well, first Shakuntala erases the commas, saying that they get in her way. And then she writes down 1122. Twenty-two seconds after the teacher finished writing it. Well, everyone is impressed.

Shakuntala’s father gets…some kind of payment, and it is time to leave. Seeing all of the kids playing around at I guess recess, Shakuntala tells him that she wants to go to school as well. What does she mean? She is going to school…well…another school. No, not like that, she says. To actually attend school like the other kids. Her father says that there is nothing that school could teach her; she would end up teaching them. Well, there is more to learning than just knowing the cube root of numbers, but sure.

Shakuntala is playing the recorder for her sister Sharda. Her father arrives and tells her to go practice, as she is booked for ten shows the following week. She continues to play the recorder, so her mother comes out and scolds Shakuntala for antagonizing her father. Shakuntala talks back, saying that she is not scared of him. In fact, he isn’t her father; she is his father. Fathers work to earn money for the household. And thus, Shakuntala is the father. Her mother tells her that what goes around comes around, and her own daughter will give her a hard time. She goes back inside. Sharda tells Shakuntala that she will be a big man someday. Why a big man? Because there is no such thing as a big woman. In that case, Shakuntala says, then she will definitely be a big woman, and Sharda will always be by her side.

Well…one evening, Shakuntala and her father return home to find that Sharda is dead. She cries over the body and then yells at her mother. Why didn’t she take Sharda to the hospital. Her father says that the hospital would have cost money. But that makes no sense. Shakuntala has been earning money from all of those shows. Where did the money go? Her father tells her that wasting money on the dying would leave nothing for the living. Shakuntala doesn’t want to hear from him. She shakes her mother, ordering her to say anything. She doesn’t. Shakuntala runs off. She vows to the ghost of her sister that she will never forgive their mother; that she will become a big woman and become nothing like her.

It is 1954. Bangalore. Shakuntala is performing at a gentlemen’s club. No, not a strip joint, a gentlemen’s club. The stage…manager person gives her an advance. She gives most of the money to her father and tells him that he can leave. He says that he will stay, but she…erm…says that it is okay. Yeah, I think that she just doesn’t want him there. She gets up on stage and…is a little more awkward than she was as a kid, but she requests questions from the young men. The guys pressure an Arun to ask the first question. He says that he has been offered a job at a British company starting in April. But…okay, the scenario is basically just the 0.01+0.02+0.04+0.08+0.16 etc. thingamee. So, she tells him what the number will be after adding up 30 numbers: 10737418.23. This question seems to be a lot simpler than the ones that she got at the school 20 years ago, but the men are impressed nonetheless.

Later, Shakuntala is dancing her boyfriend Dheeraj, another member of the gentlemen’s club. Was it his idea to have her perform there? Anyways, they laugh at how shocked the other guys were. Arun says that women around here don’t solve math problems, only household problems. Shakuntala says that household problems also require math.

Shakuntala asks Dheeraj if he had told his mother about them. He says that he will tell her after going pheasant hunting with a friend. Shakuntala is annoyed, complaining that he had been holding off for a year with such statements. Dheeraj offers to take her home and calls her his love, which seems enough to make her smile again. He goes to get the car ready and she kind of wanders around the room, looking at the shotgun and…the letter about Dheeraj’s upcoming marriage to Sukanya? Yeah, Shakuntala is not so happy. Dheeraj explains upon his return that marriages in India are fixed by parents. That has nothing to do with his love for Shakuntala. Not good enough. Dheeraj goes on to say that his father fixed a marriage from within his caste, to a family of money and repute. Shakuntala insists that she also makes money. Yes, but not in the ordinary way. And Dheeraj is an ordinary man. Not content with that answer, Shakuntala takes the shotgun and…oh shit.

It is 1955. London. What? Are you kidding me? We are time-jumping after that?? Okay. Fine.

Shakuntala has made her way to London. She lugs two cases to a guesthouse run by a woman named Tarabai. The other guests are all men, and one of them notes that they have never seen a single woman here. Tarabai declares that she is one too, and says that Shakuntala has come here to build a future, just like the rest of them. Well…not quite, Shakuntala says. She has actually been trying to escape her past. She shot a man…he didn’t die, though. He just…lost an ear…and some blood. The men stare at her. Tarabai assures them that Shakuntala is joking…and glares at Shakuntala until she gets the picture and starts laughing. Sure, that implies that she was joking, but Shakuntala does not actually say that she was joking.

Later, Shakuntala is helping Tarabai wash the dishes. She says that she scared the houseguests right on arrival. Tarabai tells her that nothing scares men more than a girl who follows her heart and laughs with abandon. Shakuntala says that she never understood the disparity between men and women…as she is washing the dishes. Tarabai tells her that that makes her special. Then she brings up next month’s rent. How will she pay it? A math(s) show, of course.

That turns out to be easier said than done. She goes to multiple people and tries to sell the show to them…and they turn her down as insultingly as they can. This guy calls the concept a joke. She references Gandhi, saying that he was also a joke…and he won.

Shakuntala makes her way to the Royal Mathematical Society. And she impresses all of the men there…with her mathematics. She asks if there are more questions and one guy says to another that they will need a translator for her fresh-off-the-boat English. Dang…was “fresh off the boat” a phrase back in 1955?

Shakuntala is leaving…I am not sure if she had struck a deal. Anyways, one of the RMS members stops her. He was really impressed. He asks how she learned to do that. In university? She tells him that she never went to school, let alone university. She had no childhood, only…this. The man finally introduces himself as Javier. She is not familiar with the name, so he spells it out. What happened to J? It is silent. Shakuntala says that alphabets are so confusing. Numbers, no confusion. After some more banter, Javier asks if she would like a hot English cup of tea on this cold January. Sure.

Javier takes Shakuntala to a restaurant, where she puts three spoonsful of sugar in her tea. She tells Javier that his English chai has no taste otherwise. Javier tells her that he is actually from Spain originally. She says that all White guys look the same. Javier shrugs that off and asks what she loves about being on stage. She tells him that she loves watching people’s faces as they see a girl in chotis doing maths. Choti? Oh, her pigtails. Javier offers to take her performance to the next level. He tells her that world needs to see her, but it would require a bit of a makeover. Shakuntala tells him that she refuses to change from her sarees. She tells him that if she does, then she will lose all of her talent. He says that that is pretty dramatic. That is how Indians are, she says; drama or nothing.

Well, if a visual makeover is out of the question, then maybe a makeover of English skills. At his very large house, Javier has Shakuntala recite an English tongue twister. She responds with one in Hindi. When Javier says that he is the teacher, Shakuntala says that teaching involves learning. Still, he has her go first. She recites the English tongue twister quite well. Now his turn…not so well. His inability to get the first syllable right makes her laugh.

What follows is…kind of a Pygmalion-style montage of Javier trying to teach Shakuntala English manners and her following along when she feels like it. He tries to have her wear more Western dress, which she ultimately refuses to do. She does put her hair up, though. Her English gets much better. Good enough to mimic the accent, though she doesn’t do that much. She is able to do her show for various audiences, be they a class at a girls’ school or some rich afternoon party with the Spanish ambassador.

Shakuntala tells Tarabai that, thanks to her shows, she will be able to pay the rent in advance. Tarabai is overjoyed. And she gives Shakuntala a letter from home. Shakuntala is…underjoyed. It is from her mother, who is complaining that Shakuntala has not sent them money since arriving in London six months ago. Does she have no sense of responsibility towards her family? Her sister may be gone, but her parents are still around.

Shakuntala is furious. She rants at Tarabai that her parents treat her like a bank, and never ask her how she is doing. Tarabai tries to assure her that they still love her, but Shakuntala is having none of it. She goes to have a letter written telling her mother that she will send money every month, so that she needs not write to her ever again.

Shakuntala is…to be on London’s top TV channel to compete with the fastest computer. And…someone in India has picked it up and has promoted it over there. Javier tells her only to stay calm, speak clearly, and not get nervous. Shakuntala assures him that her numbers never let her down. He responds with the Hindi tongue twister.

The show has been going well so far. The announcer has Shakuntala find the cube root of 786330467. She gets 923 in what seems to be under two seconds. The computer takes another four seconds to spit out that answer, so the announcer says that they are ready to take this to the next level. How about the cube root of 4650522086817312. And I stared at this for like twenty seconds to make sure that I wrote it down correctly. Seconds pass and Shakuntala is just looking at the numbers. The announcer tries to push her, but she eventually tells him that the question is wrong. Does she mean, he asks, that the computer is wrong? In fifteen seconds, the computer spits out the number 166917. Look, I don’t know shit about shit, but I do know that an odd number multiplied by an odd number multiplied by an odd number does equal a number that ends in 2. Unfortunately, Shakuntala takes too much time saying that the computer made three mistakes instead of just saying that, allowing the announcer to talk over her…and be racist…and sexist…and more racist. She asks him to check the last three digits, but he says that they are out of time.

Back at the guesthouse, Tarabai tries to assure Shakuntala that this is fine; she is only human and humans make mistakes, unlike computers. Shakuntala is adamant that she could not be wrong; not with the entire country watching her. And now they are laughing at her.

Javier goes to the guesthouse the next day to see Shakuntala. She is shut up in her room, so Tarabai has to coax her out. Eventually, she does come out to see him. He tells her that the TV has been flooded with calls asking them to recheck the question. Experts looked at the numbers and concluded that the computer made a rounding error. Of course. Switching back between English and Hindi, Shakuntala tells him that the number was supposed to end in 213, not 312. She was correct. The computer was wrong. And that, Javier tells her, is why they named her the Human Computer. Wait. Who named her that?

Oh, the papers. Hell yeah. Get stuffed, British Host.

Javier tells Shakuntala that the world is calling. He asks if she is ready.

Here is Shakuntala…somewhere in the United States.

From New York City to Paris to San Francisco to Rome. Shakuntala returns to London a rich woman…with her own place now. She invites Tarabai to a house party. Tarabai notes that her home is British along with her clothes, but Shakuntala insists that she still wears only sarees during her shows. She toured thirteen cities last month, which Tarabai says is more cities than she has seen in her entire life. Shakuntala says that humans are not trees; they have legs so that they can roam the world.

Javier approaches Shakuntala and asks to talk with her in private. Outside, he tells her that he is going back to Spain. She is upset, but he tells her that she had always known this day would come. She replies that she also knows that she is going to die. He says that now that she is rich and famous, she no longer needs him. She asks him why men always want women to need them. Dang. When is this, 1956 or 2022? He apologizes, but it is too late. She apologizes…that her love for him is not enough for him. She tells him to go, and to find someone who needs him. Shamed, he walks away. Shakuntala tries to hold in her tears and then walks back inside.

The party is over and Shakuntala is alone in her house. As she pastes another news article about herself into her scrapbook, she talks to a photo of Sharda. She tells her that she is now a big girl, but that Sharda is still the one whom she talks to in the middle of the night.

Oh, now it is 1998. Bangalore. Shakuntala is calling Anu. Ajay, Anu’s husband, takes the phone and offers to talk to her, if only to end what he calls the daily soap opera. Anu tries to grab the phone back, which results in a rather awkward scene when the broker returns with the house key. He acts like he saw nothing, and opens the door. Anu grabs her phone back and all three walk inside.

As Anu is walking around the empty house, the broker says that people in the office had told him that she is the daughter of Shakuntala Devi. She gives a somewhat stony look, but says nothing. Not taking the hint, the realtor continues, saying that she is so lucky that her mother is a genius. He tells her that her mother had visited his school when he was ten, and inspired him to actually do well in school. She tries to ignore him until he asks whether her maths is any good. She turns to him and says that she hates maths. Well…it seems that the broker finally gets the hint, and starts talking with Ajay instead. He tells him that there are two bedrooms upstairs, and that they can build more rooms if they plan on having children in the future. Anu tells the broker that they are never having children.

Ajay tries to calm things down, saying that they are buying the house to refurbish it, decorate it, and resell it. The broker is not taken aback by that statement, only that Anupama Banerji is so different from the great Shakuntala Devi. Oops. Bad move. Anu walks up to him and says that he is right. She Is nothing like her mother, but she is the one buying the house. She hates maths and she does not ever want to be a mother. Then she asks him if he wants to sell the house or if they should call another broker.

It is unclear whether they made a deal by the time Anu and Ajay walk out. Ajay tells her that he respects her decision to not have kids, but he doesn’t understand why she blew up at the broker. She says that she is tired at everyone seeing her only as Shakuntala Devi’s daughter. Ajay insists that he sees only Anu. She says that she knows that her dreams are not big. Ajay tells her that those dreams are their dreams, and that she should own it.

So, Anu decides to own it. She says that she doesn’t want to be a genius. Ajay tells her to not be one. She says that she doesn’t want to conquer the world, to be on the cover of top magazines, to be on TV. Then don’t, says Ajay.

Anu and Ajay have a meal with his parents. Anu is playing with a puppy and really enjoying it. Ajay’s parents say that they had a puppy before Ajay came along, saying that it was great practice…for what? For taking care of babies, of course. Anu…hands the puppy over to Ajay and…goes to get the lasagna from the oven.

Ajay goes to see Anu. She accuses him of getting the puppy to try to awaken her maternal instincts. He insists that it was just a gift. Then why did his mother mention babies? Now Ajay is angry. Why doesn’t she ask his mother if she wants to know. His mother doesn’t represent him any more than her mother represents her. He tells her that she has got to stop obsessing over her mother. The specter of divorce manages to calm Anu down…and Ajay as well. All is well. All is smiles. Ajay says that he must be the biggest fool in love. Second, Anu says. Oh, then who is the first?

That honor would go to Paritosh Bannerji, Anu’s father. The movie then flashes back to 1968, to chronicle his relationship with Shakuntala and the birth of Anu; and showing how, despite Shakuntala’s desire to be the best mother, her relationship with daughter was destined for disaster from the start.







So, just like last week, this movie is based on a true story…well, a real person. The Wikipedia page for Shakuntala Devi is a little short and a bunch of its citations are not available to me. And the ones that sometimes contradict each other. That’s fine. But, yeah, The Human Computer was a real person who was great at mathematics and was even entered in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1982. She did outshine actual computers, including that one that got an error. While she would use her talent as for big shows, netting her much money. However, despite getting no formal education herself, she also loved going to schools to teach mathematics to children in a way that made it fun and enticing. And she did it for free, because she loved doing it.

The movie has that huge disclaimer at the beginning acknowledging many fictionalizations and inaccuracies. I don’t want to dwell on that too much, but I want to point out a few. The big one, of course, is language. No, not her relationship with English, which I cannot comment on, but Hindi. The movie is…a Bollywood production, meaning that the language would be primarily Hindi. Javier even says that she is speaking Hindi at one point. However, Shakuntala was born in Bangalore in the southern state of Karnataka. While there are people in Bangalore who speak Hindi, less than 2% of the state speak it. Meanwhile, 2/3 of the state speak Kannada, which is also the name of the caste to which Shakuntala belonged. So…yeah, she probably spoke Kannada, not Hindi. Prakash Belawadi, who portrayed her father in the movie, is from Karnataka, and did say that the Kannada film industry should have made a Shakuntala Devi film, but didn’t. You snooze, you lose. Seven years had passed since her death in 2013; they could have come up with something even before she died. That said, the existence of this film does not prevent there from being a Kannada-language film about Shakuntala Devi…it just wouldn’t be the first.

Speaking of Shakuntala Devi’s father, it was he, C V Sandararaja Rao, who first took notice of his daughter’s mastery of numbers when she was three while playing card games, not her cousin when she was five. Perhaps it was decided that a three-year-old actor might find it difficult to say all of the lines convincingly. That’s fine. Or…maybe it was her uncle when she was five, according to a Time article from 1952…which gets her age wrong. Dagnabbit; I don’t know. The movie offhandedly mentions way late in the movie that her father had worked in the circus, but we see no evidence of that before then or after. He had rebelled against his own family to become a tightrope walker, lion tamer, trapeze artist, and magician. We see none of that. It does not mention either that he was also quite adept with numbers and did astrological predictions. Anyways, I gather that her father had taken her around the world when she was a child, not simply to schools around Bangalore. How did she feel about that? I don’t know.

The movie suggests that Shakuntala was estranged from her parents due to their treatment of her and her older sister, Sharda. She was a resource to be exploited for as much as possible while her sister was a liability to be discarded as soon as the opportunity arose. However, I am not sure if Shakuntala actually had an older sister named Sharda. She did have seven other siblings, who were also good with numbers, just not as good as her. Apparently, the family’s relationship with numbers grew strained when Shakuntala up and left at age 15…not at 25. Their mother concluded that mathematics broke up the family. The story about her shooting a guy and fleeing to England might be true but, again, it would have been about ten years prior. I also see that her father had accompanied her to England…so…again, I don’t know.

So, how did Shakuntala do this? There is actually a sequence where characters ask her over and over and she doesn’t give an answer…because she herself doesn’t know. In the movie, she goes to scientists to find out, and…using somewhat condescending language, the scientists note that her extreme adeptness with mathematics contrasts with her rather unimpressive grasp of any other concept. In real life, it was stated in 1990 that she showed no signs of being autistic, but…um…I have learned nothing beyond that.

This movie was directed by London-based Anu Menon…even though it does not show up on her Wikipedia page. Anyways, she said that first had the idea to make the movie after her own daughter, who was nine-years-old at the time, said that girls liked English and boys gravitated towards mathematics. She soon found out that Shakuntala’s daughter, Anupama, also lived in London. Her first meeting with Anupama (and Ajay) in 2016 was supposed to last for thirty minutes, but went for six hours. Menon spent three years doing research, which included meeting with Anupama several more times.

I cannot say what kind of movie this would have been without Anupama’s input, but I do believe that her input played a major role in shaping it, whether or not she herself had a hand in crafting the movie. The movie tells the story of Shakuntala through her relationships. Her relationship to the world around her, her relationship with men and, above all, her relationship with her daughter. That is made pretty apparent through the introduction. The focus is not on Shakuntala, but on her daughter, Anupama. Recently a mother, herself, she is ruminating on the concept of motherhood. So, before being a mathematical genius, this is about Shakuntala’s status as a mother. And Anupama, who is centered here, finds her a failure in that respect.

The film mentions her achievements and her inspiration on millions, of course. But it is more interested in showing her pushing against expectations of a normal life and the difficulties that come with that. In contrast, her rise to fame and wealth is shown to be rather easy. After initially wishing to attend school like normal kids, she embraces her status as extraordinary. It gives her a sense of power. But the movie frames this sense of power as filled with darkness and resentment towards her parents. She has given up on her father’s exploiting her talents for money instead of providing for the family with his own labor. She has decided him unworthy of the respect usually expected of a patriarch. Most of her ire is reserved for her mother, meekly letting her husband walk all over them and not standing up to him even once. If that was the end result of being a normal woman, then she wanted no part of it. And her drive to profit from her talents came not to please her father, but to free herself from her parents.

Shakuntala embracing her extraordinariness shows in her personality. She is larger than life and loves being larger than life. Numbers are not serious business to her, but the source of her joy. They make sense to her like little else does. But she does not retreat into numbers to hide from what doesn’t make sense to her. Instead, she sees the rest of the world as a challenge, something to bend to her will. After some early struggles, she gets help from Javier (I have no idea if he actually existed) to learn the ways of Western culture, and she uses that knowledge not to assimilate, but to navigate with ease. The information is a tool to utilize or dismiss at her whim. This makes her a huge extrovert, who loves commanding an audience and loves to party. She loves to be adored and she loves subverting expectations from folks used to the ordinary ways.

There are a lot of movies about women who gain fame, celebrity, only to find themselves chewed up and spit out by a predatory society, breaking them down and destroying who they are. Either that or they get a big head and lose who they are until they are forced back down low, begging for redemption from those whom they had left behind. That is definitely true for India, including one starring Vidya Balan, who plays Shakuntala from 25 to 70-something in this movie. But this movie does not do either of that. I mean, maybe a little, but not really. Shakuntala is a force. The world will knock her down; she will knock down the world, break its norms, and bend it to her will. And the world will love her for it. She compromises in behavior only strategically or at whim. But compromising who she is? Never.

While the movie shows her to work well with audiences and people over short stints, the movie suggests that her unconventional nature could exhaust those close to her. Sometimes that is her fault, but not always. Her parents, for example, forced her into an unconventional lifestyle and then expected her to still be a normal obedient daughter for them. She did the bare minimum that she could for them so as to not have them bother her. Is that actually true? I don’t know.

Then comes the men in her life. They seemed to think that they could handle her, but they each found a way to let her down. Dheeraj had fun with her, but did not respect her love, probably because he was intimidated by her independent nature, worrying about how it would affect both his relationship with his family, his family’s standing in the larger community, and his own standing as her husband. Javier did seem to care about her and wanted what was best for her. For the love of mathematics, he wanted her to fly. But he also ended up falling into the same hole. While valued her independence for its own sake, he did not see a future where she stayed with him without her needing to. Both men had the desire to be needed, to have a woman be dependent on them. Mere love was not enough. Is this true? Did Javier even exist? I don’t know.

Paritosh Bannerji most definitely did exist. The movie has them first meeting in 1968, but they actually married in 1964. Whatever. They really were in love, but expectations ruined things. Paritosh simply did not feel comfortable traveling the world with Shakuntala. She argued that wives of men who travel the world for business are sometimes expected to travel as well, but that was not enough for him. So, he stayed in one place, doing his job there while she traveled the world. That changed when Anupama was born. Shakuntala did try to settle down and be a regular normal mother and housewife for the sake of her daughter…but the pull of the extraordinary was too great, and Paritosh gave his blessing for her to go back to the world. But he insisted that Anupama stay with him. And that was fine…until it wasn’t.  How much of this is true? Again, I don’t know. A couple things that I have read gave a different reason for their divorce, but the movie kind of dismisses that as something that Shakuntala made up. I have not actually seen anything to say whether the movie is being false here, but I may have not looked thoroughly enough. Anyways, it fits the theme, if not necessarily reality.

And that brings us to Shakuntala’s relationship with Anupama. While it is all throughout the first half of the movie, the origins of it do not really come to light until over the second half. Shakuntala wanted the best for her daughter, which for her meant an extraordinary life. But for Anupama, that meant that her life was unmoored, anchored only by the whims of her mother. Even when Shakuntala gave up her mathematics shows and settled down in London to give Anupama a stable life, she remained controlling, even as her daughter entered adulthood. She traded in forging her own path for forging her daughter’s path. She was so intent on being nothing like her mother that she became like her father in terms of dragging her daughter around. And…like her own mother, Shakuntala failed to truly listen to her daughter and to value her opinions when they didn’t suit her.

It could be said that Anupama is presented to be more conservative-minded than her mother, but she just wanted to be treated like a person, not a project. Anupama, however, eventually learns that latching onto normalcy is not rewarded when any deviation is criticized and that motherhood is thankless enough as it is even without having another destiny pulling you in another direction. Shakuntala has to learn that too the even harder way. This realization results in a need for the two to actually come together and engage in the act of understanding acceptance without compromising who they are, instead just barely tolerating each other until they break. But is it too late?

Now…how much of this was true? Maybe some of it was exaggerated, but I would guess that most of it was based on truth. I will say that making 42-year-old Vidya Balan look 25 to 72 and making 28-year-old Sanya Malhotra look 16-years-old is primarily done through hairstyle, but the actors sell it.

The movie’s focus on Shakuntala’s relationships does kind of sideline other parts of her life. Her rise to fame and her winning over the world are mostly shown through whirlwind montages. Other parts are seen through the lens of her daughter losing patience with her, so we don’t really see the impetus for these decisions. It completely omits her theater work. There is a small sequence regarding her bid for Prime Minister, but it gets dropped once she loses. Her work in…um…astrology, gets more time, but it is very low-key. The movie does devote a segment to her having written books, particularly The World of Homosexuals, but has it happen in 1986 instead of 1977. That book is credited as the first academic book on homosexuality in India, so one could question pushing its publishing to nine years later for the sake of narrative drama.

I have seen criticism of this general approach to the subject matter. At least one critic said that it twisted the life of India’s mathematics genius into a typical mother-daughter story. A proper biopic, the critic seemed to say, would have focused on her achievements and how she inspired millions. It should have detailed her rise. It should have devoted actual time to her work with astrology, her attempt to enter politics, and her advocacy for gay rights in a time where that was a rarity in the world. That is definitely a reasonable criticism. And…at 127 minutes, there could have been an extra 30-40 minutes dedicated to that stuff and it would still have been a perfectly acceptable length for an Indian movie. But Anu Menon had an angle and stuck to it. I respect that and appreciate it. There could absolutely be another movie about the great things that Shakuntala did and what she meant to so many people. One that the Kannada movie industry could do. So, get on it, Sandalwood.

Until then, we have this movie, and I very much enjoyed it. You might enjoy it as well.

Oh, and while this is not a song and dance movie, there is a dance number in the end credits and the percussion uses the Billy Squier Big Beat sample. I have not heard that used in a song since “Girl on Fire” by Alicia Keys in 2012, though it has been used since then. I am not sure if I liked the song itself, but hearing that sample for the first time in years from an unexpected source amused me greatly.




WTF ASIA 259: Departures (Japan: 2008, approx. 131 minutes)


Available in CanadaFrancethe United Kingdomthe United States, and perhaps a few other countries.


WTF ASIA 260: Once Upon a Time in China (Hong Kong: 1991, approx. 135 minutes)


Available in France, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and perhaps a few other countries…wait…NOT the United States? His 60th birthday is on the 26th of April. What is this nonsense?