SHAKUNTALA DEVI (2020)

Shakuntala “the Human-Computer” Devi
  • Release Date: 31/07/2020
  • Cast: Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Amit Sadh, Jisshu Sengupta
  • Director: Anu Menon

A decent enough film bolstered by Vidya Balan’s spirited performance

Shakuntala’s (Vidya Balan) astonishing mathematical abilities are discovered by a relative who doesn’t waste a single moment to express the same on her family. Her father, who is without a regular earning source seizes the opportunity to make some quick bucks of his daughter’s mathematical prowess. Shakuntala starts doing “Math Shows” in schools, colleges, universities, and even celebratory gatherings. Something of that nature was never heard of before but her repute soon spreads from her village to towns. She becomes a big hit bringing in enough money and it doesn’t take her long to realize her importance in their family economics. Shakuntala, who is a willy and free-spirited soul often takes her sense of freedom and equality to the extent of causing pain through her harsh words to anyone who ends up on the wrong side of her sharp tongue. The worst sufferer is generally her father who she despises for his privileged position in the family even though she does all the earning.

Her next favorite target is her mother who she verbally rebukes often for not standing up to her husband. Soon her ailing sister dies, and she is convinced that her parents didn’t do enough to treat her. She grows further apart from her parents but continues to live with them. She grows up to be so independent and feisty that she doesn’t mind shooting her boyfriend who was hiding his eventual marriage as per his parents’ wishes. She is shooed off her country because of the violent assault and ends up in England where she meets Javier. The man not only helps her propagate and market her astonishing mathematical skills but also forges a strong romantic bond with her. After some initial hiccups, life soon gets on track and Shakuntala starts earning fame and money. Javier’s sudden departure from her life and her growing distance from her parents makes her even more skeptical about relationships and she grows increasingly self-centered and domineering.

She soon finds love and solace in the company and warmth of Paritosh (Jisshu Sengupta) who understands her and takes all her tantrums with a gentle smile. Paritosh is still an independent individual who loves Kolkata and his existence there. They soon have a child, Anupama (Sanya Malhotra), and Shakuntala’s inability to strike a balance with Paritosh on a shared parentage leads to a rift between the two. Shakuntala, being Shakuntala, takes a “not so honorable approach” on the whole matter that forces her daughter to grow up virtually without a father, angry at her mother, and wanting to be nothing like her in the future. Shakuntala goes to the extent of withholding Anupama’s letters to her father and vice versa which doesn’t go down well with her in the future.

Vidya Balan in a still from Shakuntala Devi

Shakuntala’s mother had once told her that one day she would be questioned and put in place by her own daughter in the same manner as she was grilling her mother at that point. That time seems to have finally arrived when Anupama falls in love with Ajay (Amit Sadh), decides to marry him and settle down in Bangalore. Shakuntala cannot accept her daughter leaving her and settling down with the man she had chosen for her in the first place. Thus, we are set up for a rollicking mother-daughter faceoff that is rendered more interesting by the fact that they are equally willy and fiercely independent and would go to any extent to safeguard their respective ways of life. How all this would affect Shakuntala’s mathematical prowess is an altogether different thing to watch out for in the film.

Vidya Balan shines as Shakuntala Devi and accounts for 80% of the film’s performance, intrigue, and charm. I had practically no idea about the mannerisms and exploits of “The human-computer” and hence it was very easy for me to accept the rendition of the character that Balan brings to the screen. There were a few instances when she reminded me of some of her older characters. Sans that she does extremely well to keep her mannerisms and expressions for the character fresh and in line with what can be expected of the character. There are two aspects to her character in the film. The first is that of a maths genius and how utterly confident she is about her control over numbers and how much she enjoys her time under the limelight. She also takes great pleasure in proving the ones, looking diminutively at her, wrong. Vidya Balan exudes a lot of radiance and infectious energy in these sequences that immediately grabs your attention, keeps you hooked, and literally blaze these portions past you.

The other aspect of Shakuntala’s character is her relationships with her daughter, husband, and mother. It is also about her open-mindedness towards relationship, love, and commitment and how her success affects these traits. I believe this is the portion where Balan shines even more as an actor. She gets enough opportunities to flex her acting muscles and she does her best. A quick change of reactions on hearing that the first word out of her daughter’s mouth was “Daddy” and not “Mom”, her frustration at not being able to convince a TV host that the calculation of a computer was wrong and she was right, her selfish actions to keep her daughter away from her husband and the stealing reactions that tell us that she knows that she is wrong and finally her love and hate relationship with her daughter is brought refreshingly to life by Balan’s spirited and engaging performance. Even though these sequences are nothing more than a voyeuristic look at Shakuntala’s dysfunctional family life and her endless struggles to be herself in a world that wants her to be 100 different things of which she can’t be any, they remain engrossing and affecting.

Sanya Malhotra and Vidya Balan in a still from Shakuntala Devi

Sanya Malhotra and Chahat Tewani (who plays the 11-year-old Anupama) bring the character to life with a lot of heart. I just didn’t understand why the makers kept changing Sanya Malhotra’s skin tone that is particularly distracting in the final few scenes of the film. Keeping all that aside, her rendering of a daughter who is aghast with her mother for separating her from her father, disregarding her choices and forcing her to be with her through her globetrotting, trying to jeopardize her marriage and finally trying to bankrupt her company and destroying her financially is in strong keeping with the mood and feel of the character. Chahat Tewani sets it up wonderfully and Sanya effectively takes the baton from her and carries forward with the same heart and gusto. I just loved the outbursts that she has on Shakuntala from time to time. They feel real and have a lot of heightened emotions behind them. Suffice is to say that Sanya Malhotra, in her effective rendering of Anupama, greatly aides Vidya Balan to make a greater impact with her Shakuntala.

Jisshu Sengupta and Amit Sadh are delightful in their two little cameos. I particularly loved the essay of Jisshu who graciously travels through the different ages and remains the only person who could decipher Shakuntala in the truest sense. He is so sweet and warm in his act that he successfully becomes the most likable character of the entire film.

I had a good time with Shakuntala Devi. It has an interesting story to tell and Anu Menon takes the most accessible and gripping approach to it. She never tries to make an infallible and morally correct woman out of Shakuntala and instead shows the character to be quite flawed in many sequences. This helps bolster the believability and appeal of the film. The performances from the ensemble cast are terrific. The film leaves a good taste in your mouth even though it can be very corny and Bollywood-ish at times. It’s a decent one-time watch.

Rating: 3/5 (3 out of 5 Stars)      

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