The Untold Story Of Shakuntala Devi
Boys like maths, girls like English. This was a nine-year-old’s calm explanation to her mother in 2016 about why she didn't want to join an after-school math club brimming with boys. As a feminist mom who always ensured her daughter had a steady supply of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) toys and strong women storybooks, Anu Menon was taken aback. As a film director, the response seemed obvious: make a film about a woman who rocked math.
Menon and co-writer Nayanika Mahtani, both based in London, began exploring the idea of a film on Shakuntala Devi, a maths whiz most Gen-Xers remember as ‘Human Computer’. She got the moniker after she appeared on a BBC show in 1950 when she and the computer had different answers to a complex math problem—and hers was right.
Now, after three years of research and after production was completed during the coronavirus pandemic, the film Shakuntala Devi releases globally on Amazon Prime on July 31.
Unlike most recent Hindi cinema biopics that double up as hagiographies, this one endeavours to capture the essence of a complex woman.
“She’s not a victim seeing revenge or an underdog who attains respectability,” says Menon, describing Bollywood’s two favourite female characters usually seen in ‘women-centric’ films. “She owned her flaws and frailties, she made mistakes and faced the consequences. Her life had ups and downs, upheavals and unhappiness,” says Menon.
Soon after their initial discussions, Menon and Mahtani discovered that Shakuntala Devi’s daughter Anupama Banerji also lived in London and wanted to share her story. She responded warmly and agreed to meet them for a coffee at Harrods, apparently a favourite shopping hangout of the gifted mathematician for everything, including once, a furniture binge. “It turned out to be a six-hour coffee meeting. It was a very moving experience for me,” says Menon, whose ideas of the private life of a math whiz were blown away by the stories she heard that day.
When they met, in 2016, Banerji was still grieving her mother. Shakuntala Devi died in 2013 at the age of 83 in Bangalore. “There was a palpable vacuum in her life,” says Menon about her namesake. Banerji had spent her life fighting with and being in the shadows of her mother, both loving and hating her fiercely and her loss was hard.
As for Shakuntala Devi? “Maths and motherhood were the two things that mattered the most to her and she didn’t know how to bring the two together,” says Menon.
“Her daughter was her biggest joy and her biggest heartbreak.”
Over the next three years, Banerji told the two women about her troubled relationship with her mother. She shared a treasure chest of stories about Shakuntala Devi, who played songs by Fred Astaire as she danced with her gang of three friends in the 1950s. She wore the brightest saris to mathematics conventions where she stood out in the sea of grey; she didn't know English when she first went abroad but mastered many different languages in her lifetime; until her mid-50s, she transformed her look in every decade; and she preferred to hang out with younger people at a party because she wanted to laugh and have fun rather than answer boring questions. Most of all, she followed her own path.
Between them, the three women at that coffee meeting were mothers to five daughters. It seemed natural to explore Shakuntala Devi’s story through the prism of a relationship that is rarely, if ever, depicted in Hindi cinema. “We don’t have any mother-daughter films in Hindi cinema. It’s always the ultimate conflict of the father-son relationship or the romanticised father-daughter relationship or the mother-son relationship where the mother is portrayed as a devi,” says Menon.
Shakuntala is refreshingly frank about the complexities of this relationship. “When I can be amazing why should I be normal?” Shakuntala Devi, played by Vidya Balan, tells her daughter played by Sanya Malhotra. She never did understand why her daughter wanted her to be like other mothers. Balan looks eerily like the mathematician who always wore bright lipstick and coloured her hair until the end.
After Shakuntala Devi exited her marriage to a gay man, she brought up her daughter as a single mother. One of the 20 or so books she wrote in her lifetime was on understanding homosexuality.
But apart from this strand of her private life—and the unreliable stories that her father was employed in the circus as a lion tamer, trapeze artist, human cannonball and magician—there’s not much in the public domain about Shakuntala Devi except highlights of the times she wowed the West with her mathematical gift. Like that time in 1980 at London’s Imperial College when she took 28 seconds to multiply two 13-digit numbers and snagged a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records. Or the time she calculated the 23rd root of a 201-digit number faster than a computer.
My memory of her lies in the classified advertisements in the Mumbai edition of The Times of India that announced she was in town and available for astrology consultations. Many urban Indians may remember her from the time she visited their schools to inject some fun in mathematics. But there’s not much else we know about her. “Maybe she was too real and too messy to capture,” Menon says when I ask why nobody has told this story before.
Aparna Jain, the author of Like A Girl, the inspirational stories of 56 women who broke the rules, says she tried hard to contact Banerji for some childhood stories of her mother so she could feature Shakuntala Devi in her 2018 book, but she got no response. “I wanted her in the book because she was pathbreaking. Not just because of her math but in her ability to support her husband’s sexual choices.” Jain even commissioned an illustration for the book (featured above) that she couldn't use.
Now this important story about the quirky mathematical savant, who once contested an election against Indira Gandhi, will soon be out.
“Oh my god, why have you made her so colourful?” some people who saw a preview of the film asked Menon. “The only way we can understand a woman math genius is by putting her on a pedestal,” says Menon, of audience expectations from films about famous people.
“I relished getting to know her,” says Menon. “She validated many of my desires and the way I want to live.”
Priya Ramani is a Bangalore-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.