There are a handful of mediocre films that Vidya Balan has salvaged with her stellar performances over the course of her 15-year stint in Hindi cinema, but even she can’t do much to rescue a confused outing like Shakuntala Devi. This film is desperate to lend a colourful exterior to the life of a mathematics genius who didn’t let her independence and identity be challenged at any cost through her career. However, this version of the genius is shallow and not holistic by any means and is a significant reason that limits the film’s appeal.
Seen through the lens of Shakuntala Devi’s daughter Anupama, the film looks at the conflicted childhoods of the mother and the daughter and the price Shakuntala had to pay for being a ‘superwoman’. Contrary to the claims of the lead actor and the director that they have made mathematics more accessible and fun to the aam-aadmi through the film, their take on the subject feels juvenile and more like a gifted magician trying to show her bag of tricks one after the other. Mathematics is oversimplified and many a time, the film is satisfied in being a Wikipedia of her life.
The narrative is extremely repetitive in terms of structuring – a flurry of sequences solely exists to show how Shakuntala proved her detractors wrong everywhere she landed. The more important questions, like, ‘what explains her love for the subject and where can it be traced back to?’ are conveniently ignored. Shakuntala Devi is rather content in glorifying the mathematician’s love for fashion, her exuberant energy and sense of humour, which keeps the film ticking along, despite the obvious pitfalls.
There’s an unexplainable urgency and campiness in the storytelling as it skims over many chapters in Shakuntala’s life minus any nuance – be it her progress as an astrologer, efforts to champion for the rights of the LGBTQ community or the troubled equation with her gay husband. The frantic attempts to reiterate this as a tale of how Shakuntala’s role as a mother conflicted with her journey as a mathematician, restricts its canvas. The exaggeration in the performances adds to its woes. The writing is too inconsistent and the dots don’t connect from sequence to sequence that well. The film comes into its own only during the later years of the protagonist where Vidya Balan is clearly at her best.
While many would end up watching Shakuntala Devi for brand ‘Vidya Balan’, it is Sanya Malhotra who steals the thunder from her in an exceptionally sensitive performance. The daughter’s seething anger and trauma comes through superbly in her portrayal that’s among her best performances after Dangal. Several notable actors like Jisshu Sengupta and Amit Sadh are intermittently seen through the film, but their parts aren’t established greatly and feel a tad unidimensional for one’s liking.
The vibrant colour tones in the film consistently warrant your attention; the styling for Vidya Balan is terrific and the music remains peppy. After watching Hollywood do such a fine job in dotting a chapter in life of a mathematics genius like Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity, it’s sad to see that a homegrown version of another genius like Shakuntala had to pander to the Bollywood commercial formula. Shakuntala Devi makes for a reasonable one-time-watch, but that’s a shame given the potential of the material.
(The film is streaming on Amazon Prime Video)