#Culture: Exclusive! “Shakuntala Devi Was A Math Genius Who Could Be A Bollywood Star,” Says Director Anu Menon About Vidya Balan’s Flamboyant Math Genius Act
I’m someone who has always hated maths, because it brought my average down in school. And yet, even someone like me couldn’t resist being in awe of Shakuntala Devi, the math genius who was nicknamed the ‘Human Computer’. Maybe it was envy, but when in school we were shown videos of her doing long mental calculations as if it were magic, it made me long for such a skill. Back then, Shakuntala Devi was just a distant wonder. But after watching the trailer of the Vidya Balan-starrer of the biopic based on her life, and (some light reading after my interest was piqued), I’ve discovered she was a fascinating woman and so much unlike any academician we’ve seen! But was that the reason that motivated director Anu Menon to make the film in the first place? Well, we just had to ask her!
After directing something as fun and bold as Four More Shots Please, a biopic on a math genius seems like an unconventional choice, doesn’t it? Then again, Menon’s motivations stem from quite a personal and rather noble reason!
“I think it started off by wanting to make films on women in science and maths to see positive reinforcement on screen. And a stray comment by my daughter that boys like maths and girls like English! This thought coming from a child really disturbed me. And I thought we should talk about women who enjoyed maths and science, and women should not think that it’s not their domain.”
Menon and her co-writer Nayanika Mahtani met with Anupama Banerjee, Shakuntala Devi’s daughter, who lives in London. Over years of discussion, what they found was a story that was beyond that of just a math genius. Shakuntala Devi was a multi-faceted woman and when you put it all together, her life made for a compelling story.
“Shakuntala Devi did everything that any of us would want to do. She travelled the world, she wore the best clothes. She loved makeup, music, art and she loved math. The fact that all these traits can coexist… there’s no better story to tell!”
Also Read: 5 Thoughts I Had While Watching Vidya Balan’s ‘Shakuntala Devi’ Trailer. Mainly Ki, We Hope The Woman Behind The Legend Is Done Justice To
In fact, if you’ve seen the trailer of the film, you’d be surprised that it isn’t serious and subtle like a Theory of Everything or A Beautiful Mind. Vidya Balan reigns in all her quirkiness and flamboyance while trying to bring fire up the Human Computer’s story. Many people were surprised to see it, and even had their doubts. But Menon insists that they’ve been true to Shakuntala Devi’s IRL persona.
“We were being true to Shakuntala Devi, who was like that! We didn’t think, ‘Oh let’s take her story and make it fun’. She was fun. The problem is we are the ones who put things in a box and think that they should be a certain way. Shakuntala Devi was anything but someone who’d fit into a box. She always coloured outside the lines.
Shakuntala Devi was the opposite of Theory of Everything, of Einstein and Ramanujan. They did their science and maths sitting in universities. Shakuntala Devi did not go to school or university. She performed her maths amongst people. It wasn’t a solo pursuit for her. She wanted to go dance with the kids! The film tries to break the stereotype of what a math genius should be. And if that happens, it would be a good thing.”
One of my favourite things from the trailer have to be the one-liners, penned by Ishita Moitra. It made me wonder, was Shakuntala Devi really this witty? Or it just Vidya Balan channelling Tumhari Sulu! But the more Anu Menon talks about Devi, the more I am amazed.
“She was a cool character. If you see videos of her, she is this quirky woman who had swag and sprouted one-liners! She loved singing, dancing, music, theatre; some of Bollywood’s actor and actresses were her best friends! If there was ever a mathematician who could be a Bollywood star, it would be Shakuntala Devi. To do justice to her story, you needed to be quirky!”
And who better than Vidya Balan to essay this confident, witty, and quirky woman? Balan definitely looks the part when you see her strut her genius tricks in front of the crowd, and you’re sure no one else could’ve played the role better. But was that something the filmmaker thought too? You betcha!
Says Menon, “Yes, I think she was our only choice. Even the first day we met Shakuntala Devi’s daughter, and she asked us, “Who do you think should play her?”, our answer was Vidya Balan. I had never met Vidya, didn’t know her personally, but I knew it had to be her.”
“There’s something inherently about Vidya that resonates with Shakuntala Devi. They have a similar personality—Vidya has a zest for life, she’s positive, she takes success and failure on her chin, she’s the life of the party. And both of them laugh with their heart!”
You know what? I’m really intrigued to meet this side of a math genius!
And looking at my own excitement, I couldn’t help but ask Anu Menon if her daughter, who put the though of making a biopic like this in her head, is as excited. Does she still thinks maths is boring?
“These kind of conversations [about Devi] have helped change the way she sees maths and science. But it’s also the way these subjects are presented, as if they’re very serious and dreary. You might think, ‘I am a fun person, I don’t want to do maths!’ And that’s also a thing we want to change.”
Well, here’s hoping her calculations are right, and come July 31, Shakuntala Devi changes how we think about maths and math geniuses! The film will stream on Amazon Prime Video.