Shakuntala Devi review: A biopic that adds up well, the uneven equation between the two M’s of her life- maths and motherhood

Balan’s individual brilliance helps drive this biopic on the late mental calculator, author Shakuntala Devi

Rating: 3.5 / 5

By Anannya Srusti

Edited by Ruchika Shah

Helmed by Anu Menon, Shakuntala Devi not only pays tribute to this mathematical genuis but also humanizes her as a woman and mother, while trying to capture her indomitable and unapologetic spirit.

Told through the lens of her relationship with her daughter [Sanya Malhotra], the film begins with a five-year old Shakuntala [Vidya Balan] solving the cube root of an eight digit number in a flash. From then on the first half takes us through the rise of this prodigy and how this girl in two chotis and nine yards takes the world by the storm. All hunky dory and adding up beautifully till then, the latter half brings out the strained relationship between Devi (Balan) and her daughter Anupama (Sanya Malhotra). Once taunted by her own mother in the film, Devi was told, ‘one day your own daughter will give you a hard time’… and voila it came true! While both Devi and Anupama (Sanya) swore to never turn out to be like their respective mothers, they surely come to understand theirs after becoming one.

Devi who is all about ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘mine’ unabashedly, had a progressive mindset and believed in living life on her own terms. In the 50s when women were expected to be tranquil and unobtrusive, Balan as Shakuntala can be seen spurting witty mathematical solutions at the speed of light. Her ease on stage and the gumption of taking her gifted skill on the next level, time and again is a treat to watch out for.

If someone could essay this genius so potent and compelling it had to be Vidya Balan. Essaying the character spanning from her 20s to 70s, Balan nails it by paying fine attention to the little nuances…be it her body language or her diction. The actor gets into the skin of the character, multiplies our attention and gives us an undivided entertaining performance throughout.

Let’s talk about the other pivotal character in this movie. The unhappy and angry daughter, the only expression that Malhotra holds for a major part of the film, somehow feels overdone. Yes agreed this talented young actor had to hold fort in front of the powerhouse Balan, but somehow the performance felt tad insipid (including her not-so-pleasing wigs.) Amit Sadh who plays Shakuntala’s son-in-law, Ajay Abhay Kumar, largely remains in the background. Though this talented boy does balance out the mother-daughter hate drama.

Jisshu Sengupta, through an understated performance, essays Shakuntala’s supportive husband and gains some pity for being a husband having no say, torn between his wife and daughter.

Shakuntala Devi does manage to leave the impression that a woman’s aspirations need not cease with motherhood. It’s a story of a woman told by a woman. With some sharp dialogues laced with humour and many gripping moments, there is no decimal of doubt that the film will hold its audience.

Coming to what didn’t add up much. The movie time-travels, back and forth without finesse, leaving us asking for more. It felt rushed, be it about Devi’s relations with the men in her life, her political ideologies, her endorsement of astrology and her authorship of homosexuality.

Made by an all-woman crew, Shakuntala Devi is unquestionably feminist in its essence, sans the fanfare.

“I always win, my numbers never fail me,” said Devi in this movie. Hope that prophecy turns true when it translates from real to reel world.

Shakuntala Devi [2020] is currently streaming on Amazon Prime Video.

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