By Neha Kirpal
For Nayanika Mahtani, who recently co-wrote the story for Amazon Prime’s biopic Shakuntala Devi, the script is as much about a world-famous mathematical genius as it is about a woman trying to balance her career aspirations with her desire to be a good mother. And in that sense, Nayanika relates to it perfectly.
Born and raised across India, mostly Kolkata, Nayanika did her MBA at IIM Bangalore and began her career as an investment banker. After a few years in Africa, where she followed her heart to be a writer, she now lives in London with her husband and two daughters, and has authored two children’s books and a novel.
In this exclusive interview, Nayanika talks to us among other things about her own career journey, Shakuntala Devi’s life as an inspiration for women and working with an all-women crew.
Tell us about the process of research that you used for writing the screenplay for Shakuntala Devi.
Apart from the research that was done from publicly available material, our main collaborator was Shakuntala Devi’s daughter, Anupama Banerji. My co-writer Anu Menon (who has also directed the film) and I had extensive meetings with Anupama as the script took shape. It was what we found in the course of these meetings that made us decide to tell the story through the prism of a mother-daughter relationship.
My initial impression of Shakuntala Devi was of her being this ‘mathemagician’ and ‘human computer’. However, after meeting her daughter, we got to know her not just as a celebrated math prodigy but as a person – and what we found made her story even more compelling, relatable and inspirational.
What I was really drawn to, not just as a storyteller but also as a daughter and a mother, was the fact that Anupama’s intent was not to glorify her mother but to tell an authentic story of her life, without airbrushing either her mother’s flaws or her own.
And what a life it was. For here was a woman who unapologetically lived life on her terms, who despite having grown up in adverse circumstances never played the victim, who made the most of her talent and became a world-renowned name, who wanted to have it all and saw nothing wrong in wanting a life outside of being a mother, who owned her flaws, and who was a feminist without fanfare, far ahead of her time.
What also made the story and screenplay so much fun to write was that she had a wicked sense of humour – as is evident even from some of the videos of her maths shows – and she had an insatiable appetite for life. She was an author (of genres as varied as murder mysteries, maths puzzles, homosexuality and cooking) and an astrologer.
She dabbled in politics, loved travelling, learning new languages and meeting new people. She was passionate about music and dance. She was anything but the stereotypical math genius.
The film has a powerful message about motherhood. How do you feel Shakuntala Devi’s life and struggles with respect to this are relevant for women today?
I think those struggles are still very relevant. Even today, many of us struggle to balance the demands of motherhood and our careers – and this was part of the reason we felt this story needed to be told. There is such a huge societal expectation for mothers to be these paragons of perfection for their families, often at the cost of their own dreams.
Mothers who put themselves or their aspirations or careers ahead of what their family wants are invariably branded selfish. Most portrayals of mothers in Hindi cinema perpetuate these societal expectations – placing a mother on an altar and making motherhood synonymous with sacrifice. It seems an unfair burden for women to carry.
In my career as an investment banker, I’ve encountered the “boys’ club” on several occasions, in subtle and overt ways. I’m sure most women have encountered it in some shape or form. I can imagine how hard it must have been for Shakuntala Devi 70 years ago, when she embarked on her career in the west; an Indian woman in the then very white-male-dominated arena of mathematics. But she didn’t let that stop her. In fact, she never let her gender or ethnicity define how she lived her life. She just went ahead, lived it and showed the way, and did so with élan.
I hope this story will help a lot of us perfectly imperfect women breathe easier. I think many of us have felt guilt-tripped for far too long for not being ‘enough’ or doing enough – or then for chasing our dreams and wanting too much. Which is also why Shakuntala’s Devi’s story is one that I will always treasure being associated with.
What was it like working with an all-women crew for the film?
Our cast and crew could well be a poster for girl-power. The exceptionally talented Vidya Balan brings Shakuntala Devi to life as no one else could. The lovely Sanya Malhotra plays the role of Anupama, and it is explosive to watch Vidya and her on screen together.
Anu Menon is our director, Anu and I have written the story and screenplay, Ishita Moitra has written the dialogues, Keiko Nakahara is our DoP, Niharika Bhasin Khan is our costume designer, Antara Lahiri is our editor, Meenal Agarwal and Vintee Bansal are our production designers and Shikhaa Arif Sharma and Raedita Tandan our producers.
It was an incredible experience working with this phenomenal team – perhaps this has to do with the fact that they were fabulous at what they did and a joy to work with – and not just because they were women. Also, having Vidya around brings such positivity and happy energy to the set – and I think that holds true for any set she is on, all-women or otherwise!
Of course, there were some wonderful men too – our producer Vikram Malhotra, along with Jisshu Sengupta and Amit Sadh who are absolutely remarkable at playing Shakuntala Devi’s husband and son-in-law respectively.
From writing children’s books to the screenplay of a mainstream Bollywood film – how did that happen?
I have always believed that stories choose their tellers and their timing. When I was about six years old, Shakuntala Devi came to my school to demonstrate her exceptional mathematical skills. I clearly remember that performance – she seemed like a magician pulling numbers out of a hat, to produce answers to ridiculously complicated questions. I vividly recall how she had us in splits when she told off our headmistress for her maths not being up to the mark. Both she and her show have stayed with me over the years.
When I became an author, her story was one that I really wanted to tell – simply because I thought it would be refreshing to tell a story where the hero is an Indian woman born in the 1920s who loves numbers and inspires millions.
As it happened, my director friend Anu Menon was also interested in doing a film on her. We discovered that Shakuntala Devi’s daughter also happened to live in London where Anu and I were based, and that she was looking to tell her mother’s story. It was as if the stars had aligned – to have all three of us, all in the same city, all looking to tell Shakuntala Devi’s story at the same time.
After a career in investment banking, how did you decide to become a storyteller?
It happened in a most unplanned manner. After IIM, I joined ANZ Grindlays Bank and then JP Morgan Chase. Many years later, while posted in Africa, I happened to audition for a writing assignment for Sesame Workshop – and got selected. I was asked to create content for the outreach programme of Sesame Street’s India chapter (Galli Galli Sim Sim) for children who did not have access to television.
I realised that I loved writing – got into copywriting from there on, which suited me given that my children were toddlers and I could work out of home. Before I knew it, it was 2015 and my first book, Ambushed, was published by Penguin Random House – which was beyond my wildest dreams. Then two more books and a film script followed.
Who are some of your contemporaries that you admire?
I wish I could write or even think like Shonda Rhimes or Phoebe Waller-Bridge. There are so many amazing screenwriters in Hindi cinema too – I hugely admire Atika Chohan, Varun Grover, Reema Kagti, Zoya Akhtar, Alankrita Shrivastava and many others – and of course, I owe a special thank you to Ishita Moitra who wrote the dialogues for Shakuntala Devi and was so warmly supportive of a newcomer like me.
Your latest book, Across the Line (Penguin, 2019), is rooted in the Partition of the subcontinent. Tell us more about it.
I honestly believe that stories choose us. For Across the Line, the seed was an unspoken conversation with my grandfather, when I was about ten years old; a conversation I wish I had had but didn’t find the words for at the time. My grandparents, like millions of others, were rendered refugees in the aftermath of the Partition. Yet, they never spoke about this cataclysmic upheaval in their lives. Except for once – but, sadly, that conversation remained unfinished. I felt the silence of what was left unsaid consume me – until the silence was deafening. I had to revisit those unspoken words – and the only way I knew how was to write.
The book has two intercutting storylines – one set in 1947 and the other in the present. My intent in writing this story was not to indulge in a blame game, but to give our youngsters a window into the events that led to the Partition and what followed – and to explore what we could perhaps take away from it in today’s tumultuous times. My hope was that this book would in some way help to build bridges in a world that seems bent on building walls.
Across the Line has made it to the Honour List of the prestigious South Asia Book Awards and received some very encouraging accolades from leading voices on both sides of the border, including Sachin Tendulkar, Vidya Balan and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy (Academy award winning filmmaker from Pakistan).
Which are some of your favourite films.
Some time back, as a Facebook challenge, I did a quick list of films that struck a chord with me – and quite coincidentally, they were all films by women directors and/or writers: 36 Chowringhee Lane, The Namesake, Persepolis, Lady Bird, Capernaum, Monsoon Wedding, Gully Boy, A Death in the Gunj.