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Shakuntala Devi movie review: Vidya Balan’s new film on Amazon Prime Video is a storm

Vidya Balan plays Shakuntala Devi with so much ease that you hate her smug, "I am correct?"

It is midnight, and Amazon Prime Video decides to share a math secret draped in Kanjeevarams. The trailer of Shakuntala Devi is rather misleading, and everyone thought that Vidya Balan would be overdoing the ‘bubbly’ thing.

The movie, though, is not all bubbly, not some frothy cheap Champagne to be opened at festivities, to be shaken and sprayed on winners. This is a carefully-cultivated harvest and mix of blanc de blancs or blanc de noirs.

If you have a nose for it, you will want to call your mom when you finish watching the film (or at least send her an emoji because it is half past two at night).

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I am not much of a fan of biopics. They fall into tropes: hidden talent discovered by accident, they topple a super successful opponent, they shine and then there’s downfall. Most sports biopics follow that trope with stories tweaked a bit here and there. A film on Shakuntala Devi’s life could have been just that, and the trailer sort of promises it.

Like I said, the goodness of the vine, the sun, the soil and the talent of the vintner can only be tasted when you pop open that cork. Champagne has math too! How many of the 600 to 800 grapes and in what proportion of pinot noir, pinot meunier and chardonnay grapes (picked early) are going in that bottle? How many bubbles should a bottle have?

Shakuntala Devi is a child prodigy who is led by her father to schools not to study but to showcase her talent for numbers. But this film is not like child prodigy films about talent shows. This is the story of mothers and daughters. Little Shakuntala hates her mother who suffers silently (incredible acting by Ipshita Chakraborty Singh even though she barely has a couple of lines of dialogue in the film).

When Shakuntala has a daughter of her own, she decides she is going to love her daughter more than anything else and ends up smothering her. Shakuntala’s daughter grows up hating her mother and promises herself that she is never going to be like her own mother to her daughter. The cycle of hatred and love is obvious and yet you are entangled in the story.

‘Why can’t you be like normal mothers?’ Her daughter asks her, and she simply says,‘Why be normal when you can be amazing?’

It’s a burden, sometimes, to be related to someone who is incredibly talented. We love it when they win accolades and their pictures are splashed in the papers. But is it enough for you only to be the daughter, wife, son of someone who is considered to be a genius... Is it enough for you when you stand in the wings to applaud? How do you match up to their standards? Do they think less of you because you don’t have the same abilities? Harry Potter’s son feels it, and so does Shakuntala Devi’s daughter. (You see, she has a name, but her famous mother won’t like her to be anything else but just a possession.) We have all experienced this conflict in our lives too.

Vidya Balan plays Shakuntala Devi with so much ease that you hate her smug, "I am correct?" The sarees, the pigtails, the drinking of tea from the saucer, the laugh, the tantrum (‘The computer is wrong!’) is a piece of cake for this fine actor. And some might dismiss the whole movie based on happy math demos. That’s the froth that bubbles out of a champagne bottle when newbies pop the cork. But those who know wait for her to say, ‘Don’t need me, love me.’

I do not know if watching a film on an OTT platform is good or not, but here, I paused the film and looked at the moment again. Javier (J is silent) tells her that he has to leave her, and Vidya Balan as Shakuntala Devi displays all her frustration. How can anyone leave her? It doesn’t compute and words fail her. That’s when you realise that this film is not just ‘bubbly’ it has all the flavours of the grapes ripened under a very French Sun. And Vidya Balan is just the right mix of pain and laughter and talent to be Shakuntala Devi.

Her daughter Anupama Bannerji is played by Sanya Malhotra (she made her debut in Dangal and has starred in hits like Badhaai Ho). She is supposed to hate her mother and determined to not be like her but the hatred feels a tad overdone. I belong to a generation where we learnt to bite our tongues if we were jealous of a sibling’s successes, or seethe in silence when grown ups misjudged you, or sing Jolene if a friend betrayed you..

But, Amit Sadh, who plays Anupama’s husband Ajay, balances the ‘I hate my mother’ drama.

One more thing that this film accomplishes rather smoothly is it shows how much Shakuntala Devi misses Mathematics when she wears other hats. When she plays the lover, the housewife, and when she plays the loving mother… If you have given up a passion to play the role you are now playing in your life, this film will resonate with you.

Vidya Balan tries to fight her passion for math and the joy she experiences during the shows but cannot. This is such a tribute to all of us who have a secret folder on our computers where we are writing the great Indian novel, or penning passionate poetry, or inventing the thing that will be hailed as the thing best after sliced bread.

You feel the loneliness she experiences when she decides she cannot live without maths and has to come back to an empty hotel room. I loved Vidya Balan’s jealous moments: she won’t let her daughter read letters from the father, she won’t let her daughter out of sight. Inadvertently, she becomes the villain of the film. As Shakuntala Devi’s husband explains, ‘She’s like a storm. Best not stand in her way.’

Salutations to the mostly-women team: writer-director Anu Menon, writer Nayanika Mahtani, dialogue writer Ishita Moitra, cinematographer Keiko Nakahara and editor Antara Lahiri.

What could have been a predictable biopic of a brilliant person is really drama you and I have experienced in our lives. It made me tear up for all mothers who have suffered silently, and for daughters who did not get a chance to understand their mothers. Shakuntala Devi’s books are still teaching kids maths and I hope more women who like mathematics will have the courage to say so.

The experience of this film that released at midnight is like discovering the fabulous taste of the 1995 Krug Clos d’Ambonnay or the 1996 Dom Perignon Rose when you are used to posing with sparkling wine. And, Shakuntala Devi would have reminded you of a question I posed somewhere in the beginning of this review: How many bubbles in a bottle of bubbly? The answer, like this movie will amaze you: 49 million bubbles in a 750 millilitre bottle.

Manisha Lakhe is a poet, film critic, traveller, founder of Caferati — an online writer’s forum, hosts Mumbai’s oldest open mic, and teaches advertising, films and communication.
First Published on Jul 31, 2020 10:43 am
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