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Shakuntala Devi Review: Vidya Kasam, Shakuntala Comes Alive!



Shakuntala Devi(Amazon PrimeVideo)

Starring Vidya Balan,Jisshu Sengupta, Shakuntala’s husband,Sanya Malhotra ,Amit Sadh

Directed by Anu Menon

Rating; *** ½

 The best part of  getting Vidya Balan to play the maths  genius Shakuntala  Devi  is  that  that they both, the  maths genius and the actresss, make their job look so easy. While Shakuntala  Devi rattles off gigantic  numbers(caterpillaring  on screen a  la Hidden Figures)   to an open-mouthed  audience all  across the world,  Vidya  Balan’s performance will in all likelihood  would have the same affect  on an  audience as  the  amazing story   of the  “human computer” ..

Shakuntala  Devi   comes to   us unadulterated, unapologetic  and  refreshingly free  of cloying sentimentality.Well, almost. There are  sequences towards the  end  of  the nifty narrative where mother Vidya Balan and daughter  Sania Malhotra(she, poor soul, struggling to match up to the imperious  histrionics of the amazing Ms Balan)  where director  Annu Menon could  have  pulled  out all tops.

Luckily, the  mood  in this  buoyant  bio-pic is forever sunny  , with a few rainclouds making intermittent  appearances. What is rare in our desi bio-pics is honesty.  The Dhoni one , for instance, did away with Dhoni’s brother. And  the Sanjay Dutt one  simply blocked out  Dutt’s daughter.Shakuntala  Devi(SD) tells it like it was, Straight , blunt and  unvarnished. Even the issue of SD’s husband(played with  heartwarming  sincerity by Jisshu Sengupta)’s  alleged homosexuality is   tackled  headlong,  though I did feel  that the narrative was  purposely  opting for ambivalence on  the issue to burp all  its  age-groups of viewers into blissful submission.

 Vidya’s Shakuntala  raging against  her daughter Anupama’s bourgeois ambitions like  Ingrid Bergman in  Ingmar Bergman’s Autumn Sonata(though sadly,  Sania Malhotra is no Liv  Ullman)  succeeds  in keeping the  drama  subdued even in  the worst-case scenario.And  what could be  worse than mother and  daughter  facing each  other  across  a table of opposing lawyers? Amit Sadh playing  Anupama’s  husband  is a reliable buffer between the two warring women. Sadh tries  not to be  swept away in his onscreen   mother-in-law’s  swamping  ebullience. 

 Reifing the  messy relationship between  an overpowering mother and a  non-submissive  daughter, Vidya  Balan stares at her  screen-daughter across the table with a heart-melting blend of  compassion and  incomprehension. Here  Balan becomes Everymother, so universally  benign  as to remind us that she is indeed the true inheritor of  Shabana Azmi’s crown.

The early sequences showing a young pigtailed Shakuntalamaking   her way through London’s academic snobbery is   shot in a sunlit spaces,  as  though the film wants  us to breathe  the young mathematician’s  purified air. But Keiko Nakahara’s  cinematography  is  not really interested in  geographical landscapes. Its searches  for answers within. Later,the mood merges into  a somber light effortlessly.

But  the  guiding mood is stubbornly light-headed. In that sequence where  Sania  Malhotra’s Anupama asks her parents  to  behave “normally” in front  of  her future husband’s parents  Balan and  Jisshu Sengupta  demonstrate  a wickedly winsome  sense  of humour .

For all  its  dramatic  possibilities Shakuntala  Devi is a sunny positive  film about characters who  won’t  celebrated  the dark side    just because they are not ‘normal’ , who  will fight back hard when  life  seems  unfair but won’t  curse the Gods  even when their world is falling apart. This is  one of the best  bio-pics I’ve seen in Indian cinema.Truthful   and toothsome,  sincere and  scrumptious , intense and  ebullient,  Shakuntala Devi’s mathematical  genius is matched by  the director’s  vision of  a  brilliance that  eclipses everyone else  in the room without  apology or guilt.

 I wouldn’t say Vidya lives Shakuntala’s life  king sized. Why be  a   king when  you can be  queen?

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