Friday 31 July 2020

"Shakuntala Devi" (Guardian 30/07/20)

Shakuntala Devi ***
Dir: Anu Menon. With: Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Amit Sadh, Luca Calvani. 127 mins. No cert.

In recent years, the Hindi mainstream has become more proactive about telling the stories of notable women. This new streaming premiere follows on the heels of last October’s crowdpleasing Saand Ki Aankh, which centred on sharpshooting sisters-in-law, but it leans with far greater force into its subject’s idiosyncrasies. What results is a biopic with genuine character.

The feats described here are mental: the eponymous heroine (Vidya Balan) was a phenomenal, Guinness World Records-noted mathematician who performed for many decades last century under the stage name The Human Computer. Director Anu Menon approaches her, however, from the unusual angle of Devi’s daughter Anu (Sanya Malhotra), introduced marching into a London lawyers’ chambers in 2001 to initiate criminal proceedings against mum for failing to provide for her.

While that case is pending, the thoughtful script (by Menon, Nayanika Mahtani and Ishita Moitra) fills in the brainiac’s backstory. Born into poverty in Bangalore, she’s obliged to flee India after shooting a no-good suitor, eventually landing in post-War Britain, where a Spanish Henry Higgins (Luca Calvani) helps to polish her broken English.

Hot from streaming hit Four More Shots Please, Menon has immense fun with her period recreation, bouncing between hemispheres, timeframes and wardrobes while underlining a growing distance between mother and child, crystallised by a lyric in one of Sachin-Jigar’s fine songs (“You’re like a puzzle I’ve always tried to solve”). Maths is only one touchstone; another would be that run of women’s pictures from Mildred Pierce to Mommie Dearest.

Accordingly, the material yields an all-shotguns-blazing performance from Balan, one of the few Bollywood stars smart enough to memorise twelve-digit integers. Her Devi bends equations and men alike to her will, refusing to conform whether flaunting her Caesarean scar as a maternal badge of honour or – in a remarkably relaxed, enlightened sidebar – penning the 1977 tome The World of Homosexuals.

She casts a formidable shadow, but Malhotra emerges from it with credit, quietly affecting as a more conventional personality who found she could only rebel against such a trailblazing parent by pushing even further into domesticity. It finds funny ways of dramatising the process whereby one generation of women squares away its frustrations with another, but it adds up to spirited, intelligent, authentically feminist entertainment.

Shakuntala Devi is available to stream today via Amazon Prime.

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