Directors: Anu Menon
Producer: Sony Pictures
Long before feminism became a fashionable word in the West, a 5-year-old child prodigy in Bangalore was already raising pertinent questions. When her sister Sharda tells her that one day she’ll grow up to be a bahut bada aadmi, Shakuntala pertly replies, “Why a great man? Why can’t I become a great woman?” Unafraid to speak up, Shakuntala notes how her father unashamedly makes money through shows where he shows off her mathematical skills instead of letting her go to school like a normal child. And when he goes to the extent of letting Sharda, the non-earning daughter, die rather than pay hospital bills, Shakuntala begins to loathe her mother who stays silent before her husband.
Armed with her natural genius and her natural feminism, Shakuntala is always clear that she won’t let her gender smother her flamboyance, and she conquers the world as the human computer. But not before shooting at a boyfriend who, behind her back, agrees to marry mama’s choice. All through her whirlwind world tours, while complex maths problems are her friend, it’s gender disparity that baffles her.
In London, her first stop, sarcasm and sniggers over the saree-clad girl’s off-the-boat English slowly give way to applause for her sheer genius.
Shakuntala has a sense of humour too that she trains on gentleman Javier, pronounced Havier, her Spanish-born mentor who teaches her English and turns her into the figure who inspires awe in academic circles. Calling him ‘J silent’, when he too goes back home saying she doesn’t need him anymore, she questions, “Why do men want women to need them? Isn’t my love enough?”
For a short while, marriage to suave IAS officer Paritosh Banerji and becoming mother to baby Anu tame her. But she’s a nomad, he a tree. When she begins to yearn for the stage and world adulation again, Paritosh understands that if you love Shakuntala, you let her be.
But life comes full circle when Shakuntala’s rootless wanderlust and love for life makes her daughter Anu hate mathematics and ritzy hotel rooms. It’s now Shakuntala who has to face a daughter who loathes her and all that she stands for. And, as Paritosh points out, in wanting to fulfill her own wants, she has become like her dad in denying Anu a normal school life.
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The best things about Anu Menon’s film are Vidya Balan’s free-spirited performance that catches the essence of the real life Shakuntala Devi and presenting her the way she was. The effervescent Shakuntala had her warts, neither Anu nor Vidya attempt to hide it. And it is a wonderful story to tell.
On the other hand, extreme feminism can sometimes be unreasonable. For instance, when Shakuntala insists on carting Anu everywhere with her, it’s Paritosh who comes off as the better person when he tells her that she’s a child, not a piece of luggage to be lugged around.
After demanding that he too come with them and he says he’s not her stepney, Shakuntala queries, “If you were the world’s best mathematician and I were to accompany you, would I be considered your stepney? Then why should you worry about being called my stepney?” But this conversation should have logically gone on to Paritosh replying that if the wife were an IAS officer, would she be asked to give up her job and accompany her husband on his world tours? But in skewering the conversation to let Shakuntala have the last word, Anu Menon doesn’t allow a rejoinder from Paritosh.
It’s also a bit of a fantasy that Paritosh and Anu’s husband Ajay are far too good-natured and pliant when mother and daughter are sometimes whimsical, hysterical and selfish in their overarching emotions.
There’s also a bit too much of back and forth, going from Shakuntala’s tale to Anu’s and back again which can be as dizzy as solving BODMAS and square roots.
But with smooth performances from Sanya Malhotra as Anupama, Amit Sadh as Ajay and Jisshu Sengupta as Paritosh, topped with a delightful story, it is a comfortable OTT watch.