The Man Who Knew Infinity packs about the same amount of creative insight and dramatic conflict as the average encyclopedia article.

The Man Who Knew Infinity An encyclopedia article masquerading as a film
Features Entertainment Friday, April 29, 2016 - 19:05

Early in The Man Who Knew Infinity, when Srinivasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) finds out that he’s being offered the chance to work with GH Hardy in Cambridge, a short argument ensues between him and his wife Janaki (Devika Bhise).

When it starts you expect Janaki to build herself up to a proper tirade about being left behind 6,000 km away when the two have just started living together. But the argument ends even before it begins, much like every instance when Janaki’s emotions threaten to come to the fore. At each instance, the camera lingers on her for a few seconds, long enough for a dialogue or two and then she’s gone.

And it’s not just Janaki. Almost every character and situation in the narrative appears only long enough to make a point or two of social description, often with the most banal dialogue. Ramanujan’s mother is just close-minded enough to raise the fear of losing caste at the start of the film. And later, she is just proud enough to celebrate his first publication but perfunctorily concerned that she will lose her son to a foreign land. Racist opponents that Ramanujan faces appear only long enough to beat him up once, and yell at him to go back to India at regular intervals.

Even his benign supporters don’t have much to do but smile slightly patronizingly and offer Hardy platitudes about “letting Ramanujan run”, instead of shackling him with university standards of rigour.

Never mind, you might think. After all, the Ramanujan story is centrally concerned with his relationship with mathematics and Hardy, the man who opens up this world for him. But Jeremy Irons, who tries to play Hardy with a stiff-upper-lip indifference to Ramanujan’s everyday hardships, seems to have phoned his role in. Thus, what could have been a ripe confrontation between the atheist, unsocial Cambridge don and the caste-conscious, god-fearing family man ends up passing by in a series of missed encounters.

And let’s not even talk about the way mathematics appears in the film. For a film about a mathematician, there is little real thinking about what numbers mean when they become a lifelong obsession. Instead, we are given one analogy about Ramanujan’s intuitive approach to mathematics being much like an artist’s approach to his art. Another about Ramanujan being a man for whom each whole number is a friend.

And Ramanujan himself says that mathematical formulae come to his mind because god puts them there. It is very possible that Ramanujan himself thought that mathematics expressed a truth of god. But for a film nearly a century later to simply repeat that thought without even the slightest bit of reinterpretation is laziness of the worst order.

At the end of the 108-minute runtime, I leave the theatre wondering if I would not have been just as informed, and entertained (and I use the term loosely) by simply reading the Wikipedia article about Ramanujan. After all, The Man Who Knew Infinity packs about the same amount of creative insight and dramatic conflict as the average encyclopedia article. 


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