“If I Can Be Amazing, Why Should I Be Normal?” Shakuntala Devi’s Biopic Scores on Empowerment

A new film on the life of renowned mathematician Shakuntala Devi, played by Vidya Balan, is an eye-opening glimpse into a remarkable life.

By Neha Kirpal

Vidya Balan-starrer Shakuntala Devi, released today on Amazon Prime, is a glimpse into the life of the world-famous mathematician as seen through the eyes of her daughter Anupama Banerji (played by Sanya Malhotra). A well-researched biopic, it reveals aspects of the great scholar’s life that not many people would know, and highlights how she broke gender stereotypes as a liberated Indian woman decades ago. Her journey is relevant today as it was then, and may even be an eye-opener for many.

Apart from its two leading ladies, the biopic also has a strong all-women crew behind the scenes including director Anu Menon with screenplay by Nayanika Mahtani, dialogues by Ishita Moitra, cinematography by Keiko Nakahara and editing by Antara Lahiri.

The film begins with Shakuntala as a precocious eight-year old who solves complicated numerical problems without blinking an eyelid. With her quiet confidence, it is not long before her family and school discover her rare mathematical genius. At a young age, she begins to make money by doing shows in which she displays her brilliance, and even solves people’s real-life problems to do with their finances and astrology. 

Back in the 1930s, Shakuntala resolved to grow up and become a successful woman someday. With aspiration and ambition, she was unique and someone clearly far ahead of her time when women did no more than run homes and bring up children. On her part, she never really saw the difference between men and women, and that is what made her special.

In 1955, she goes to London to follow her heart and chase her dream. She displays her exceptional ability at the Royal Mathematical Society where people are shocked to see a gifted young woman from “the land of snake charmers and elephants” cracking convoluted arithmetical computations while sporting a sari and a funny accent.

A Spanish gentleman she meets feels the world needs to know her. He helps her groom herself, improve her language and table manners as well as read books. As a result of these efforts, Shakuntala begins teaching mathematical tricks to children in schools and doing shows in England.

Further recognition leads to her being invited on a radio show where she beats a computer. This earns her the title of a “human computer”, and the world is soon abuzz with news about her brilliance. In a room usually dominated by men, Shakuntala soon becomes an inspiration for women everywhere.

After marriage, Shakuntala gives birth to her daughter, Anu. Instead of enjoying the new phase of motherhood in her life, she finds that she misses her world of mathematics, her tours to various cities as well as her life on stage. “Do women’s brains stop working after they become mothers?” she questions.

And so, she soon resumes her shows and travel while her husband takes care of the little girl in her absence. When Anu speaks her first word, Shakuntala is not around. Soon, a separation from her husband leads her to take her daughter along with her wherever she goes.

The film throws light on a little known facet of Shakuntala’s life—her troubled relationship with her daughter, which in turn, was caused partly by Shakuntala’s complex equation with her own mother. Anu feels overshadowed by her mother all her life. Unlike Shakuntala’s magnanimous existence, she has small dreams for her own life, and doesn’t want to be anything like her. All she wants is to be a regular girl like her friends.

When she questions her mother about why she can’t be normal like other mothers, Shakuntala responds by saying, “If I can be amazing, why should I be normal?” Anu ends up hating mathematics as she feels that her mother always preferred it over her.

Much later, Anu manages to see her mother’s point of view. Seeking her own career soon after becoming a mother, Anu begins to understand where Shakuntala was coming from. She realises that all her life, she saw Shakuntala as just her mother, and not as a woman with her own share of hopes and dreams. It is only then that she begins to see her in a new light as someone who respected and lived for herself.

As is expected of a National Film Award-winning actor, Vidya Balan plays her unconventional role with aplomb and elan, bringing in the protagonist’s ‘bindaas‘ flair. She portrays Shakuntala as someone witty with a great sense of humour. A high achiever, she never lost. Even when relaxing in nature, mathematics never left her as she constantly searched for geometrical patterns in leaves and snowflakes. In her eventful life filled with ups and downs, it was only numbers that never let her down.

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