With a film on Shakuntala Devi releasing on Amazon Prime Video on 31 July, its director talks to G20 about Devi, who was not just a math genius but someone entertaining, interested in the world and who lived life to the fullest.
When director Anu Menon’s nine-year-old daughter said ‘girls like English and boys like Maths’, she decided that she needed to break this perception and thus began project Shakuntala Devi. The London-based director spent three years researching the mathematician, including numerous interviews with Shakuntala Devi’s daughter Anupama Banerji, before the film took shape.
Elaborating on Vidya Balan playing Shakuntala Devi, Anu Menon says she always had Vidya in mind while writing the film along with Nayanika Mahtani. “Vidya was not interested in doing a biopic which was a puff piece where it just glorifies the story. No human being is perfect and what’s the fun? Actors love the flaws, the vulnerabilities and the conflicts. To only play characters where people worship you then that wasn’t exciting for her as an actor. If biopics didn’t dig deeper, it didn’t excite her. Shakuntala Devi was more than a math genius—she was so entertaining, interested in the world and lived life to the fullest. There were so many contradictions to the way we perceive a mathematician, a genius, a woman, a mother —there were so many stereotypes she was shattering. All this excited Vidya. This meant bringing all of this to life and capturing the journey of this larger-than-life woman needed a lot of work. Vidya put in a lot of hard work to capture the essence of Shakuntala Devi. Vidya is a dream for directors – she gives you so much of herself. It is known that directors fall in love Vidya and they are stuck for life. That has happened to me also. She is a very special actress,” smiles Menon.
It was the meetings with the mathematician’s daughter, Anupama and her husband Ajay, which gave Menon tremendous insight into their relationship and how Shakuntala Devi was as a person. “It was a very moving experience when I met them. Shakuntala Devi had passed away in 2013 and I felt the best way to understand her was through her daughter. The journey they’ve had with her was the truth and that truth humanises her and it was a very moving story. To understand a genius through that was way more unique and there was a dramatic story there even for cinema. I have a lot of gratitude to Anupama and Ajay for allowing us to give us this opportunity to take that path. While she’s another, she’s also a genius—sometimes those two worked well together and sometimes they didn’t. While all of us will look up to her, we will all see ourselves in her. That is the beauty of cinema,” she elaborates.
Translating Shakuntala Devi’s life on screen without compromising on any aspect or losing integrity, was important to the director. “Every film has its own challenges and is unique. This film is perhaps a bit more difficult because you’re capturing the life of someone real who had lived a large life in a two-hour mainstream film. We were very committed that we would be true to her and her life. We’ve not sensationalised or dramatised anything unnecessarily. The integrity of the film is in tact. The shoot was challenging because we had to travel to various places and then due to the pandemic, post-production was done during the lockdown. Every step of the way was challenging. But I can’t ever remember thinking this is going to be easy at any point in my career,” adds Menon.
Shakuntala Devi is the director’s third feature film and is produced by Sony Pictures Networks India and Vikram Malhotra under his banner Abundantia Entertainment. With the film releasing on Amazon Prime Video on 31 July, is Menon nervous? “The eve when all the audience and critics are watching your film, that perhaps is the most difficult or anxious time,” she laughs. “It’s at that point, the film stops being yours and starts belong to the audience.”