Director Anu Menon says mathematician Shakuntala Devi, who is the subject of her upcoming Vidya Balan-starrer biopic, had a larger-than-life personality and would have fit perfectly in Bollywood.
Shakuntala Devi was known for her ability to make incredibly swift calculations and became famous as the “human computer” for her uncanny ability to play with numbers. Her genius was first discovered at the age of five, when she solved a math problem for 18-year-old students.
The trailer of the eponymous biopic, which will start streaming on Amazon Prime Video from July 31, had surprised many with its vibrant tone.
But Menon said her film, just like the personality it chronicles, defies the stereotype that mathematicians are serious.
“If there was any mathematician who could be a Bollywood heroine, it’s Shakuntala Devi. We like to put people in a box and if something is shown to them which is outside of that box, they get confused because in their heads mathematicians are ‘serious,'” Menon told PTI.
During her research, the London-based filmmaker found pictures of Shakuntala Devi partying with celebrities in Los Angeles. She also came to know about the mathematician’s love for dance.
“She would party with her friends, dance, drink wine and make dosa for everyone. That’s who she was.”
Menon said Shakuntala Devi was in complete contrast to another famous Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan.
The director said it was only fitting that her journey on the screen is given a “larger-than-life treatment”.
“Shakuntala Devi was the opposite of Ramanujan. She has been performing on stage from the age of five. For her, her mathematics was drama. She wore her heart on her sleeves, so everything was so dramatic.
“So the line in the trailer, ‘we Indians are like that only, drama or nothing’ is there for a reason. We haven’t tried make it look like a Bollywood film.”
This is the director’s third feature, after her debut with London Paris New York in 2012 and Naseeruddin Shah-Kalki Koechlin starrer Waiting in 2015.
The director said Shakuntala Devi aligns with her attempt to chronicle women on screen who aren’t “one-note”.
Menon said women in her films are slightly “entitled, flawed.”
“I feel it’s important to have some positive reinforcements on-screen. I’ve always been passionate about how to show women on the screen.”
Menon has written the story along with Nayanika Mahtani with dialogues penned by Ishita Moitra.
The director said her idea was to show how “maths can be feminine” after she heard her nine-year-old daughter say girls like English while boys gravitate towards mathematics.
“That’s when I thought to make a story on Shakuntala Devi and found Anupama Banerjee, her daughter, who also lives in London. We met for coffee and the meeting lasted for six hours.
“This was in 2016 and her mother had passed away in 2013.”
Menon returned from the meeting with a fresh perspective about the wizard and an insight into her fractured relationship with her daughter.
“I found this daughter who was grappling with this big void in her life. Imagine having this larger-than-life mother, with whom you’ve had a tumultuous relationship… I felt this is a perspective we need to take. This is what made her human,” Menon said.
After three years of research, watching her old interviews and studying her life, Menon said the team decided to move forward on the movie.
The film is about Shakuntala Devi’s big achievements and her journey of motherhood.
“We brought mathematics and motherhood together and that’s the narrative to see. It’s unflinching because I can’t put people on pedestals even in real life.
“Most biopics are puff pieces because of the kind of freedom you get. But her daughter was ready to go into that space. The film is about this genius who embraced the good and the bad and lived life unapologetically,” she added.