In a black and white video on YouTube, a young Shakuntala Devi waits, as a man writes on a board behind her two eight digit numbers that have to be multiplied. She takes one look at the figures and gives the answer, asking the man behind a machine, “That’s my answer, what does the facit (calculator) have to say?” The man says it is correct and Shakuntala gracefully walks away to loud applause.
Shakuntala – the woman who could toy around with big numbers – was known as the human computer, and she earned a place for herself in the Guinness Book of World Records. Now, seven years after her passing, a biopic on her extraordinary life will soon release.
The director of the film, Anu Menon, an engineer who graduated from BITS Pilani, also likes math, science and technology. And she chose another ‘very, very intelligent woman’ – Vidya Balan – to play Shakuntala in the biopic, the third film that Anu has made in eight years. London, Paris, New York and Waiting, came out four years apart, and now Shakuntala Devi comes another four years later.
“There was preparation, yes. Vidya Balan mostly has a lot of Math performances to do, where she rattles off these long digit numbers and gives complicated explanations. I think Vidya likes math and she is obviously very intelligent and understands concepts. I just knew that only Vidya Balan could play Shakuntala Devi, there was never another option for her. I think she really enjoyed it too and it gave her a high. It sort of renewed all our interest in math. When we did the scenes, people on the sets would get involved in the math and get excited,” Anu Menon says in an interview to TNM, ahead of the film’s release on Amazon Prime Video.
She is happy that the film is getting released on the OTT platform and reaching the audience at a time when the theatres are closed and people are looking for exciting content during the lockdown. “We have a story so inspiring, entertaining, and heartwarming. I think we need to consume these stories in such times,” she says.
Telling the story of one of the greatest minds in the world sounded like the most natural thing to do for Anu. She has always wanted to tell stories about women in math and science and technology, she says, and that’s how she began to look for stories. “And obviously Shakuntala Devi is synonymous with math. And I thought it would be an interesting story to tell for a generation,” Anu says.
Shakuntala Devi / Courtesy - Hetvee S Patel / Wikimedia Commons
It is a pity the way math is taught to us, she says, how it feels like a chore, a difficult subject for which you want to choose other options. “People should really embrace these subjects (math and science and technology). It’s been really enjoyable researching numbers and math for this film," she adds.
But it isn’t just the human computer aspect of Shakuntala Devi's life that Anu’s film talks about. Shakuntala Devi is also known for writing a book in as far as 1977, calling for the decriminalisation of homosexuality. “What the film talks about is a woman who obviously was amazing in math. But it's also about how she lived so ahead of her times. She spoke about feminism, homosexuality and just living life on your own terms, way before all of these became mainstream discussions. She had the instinct to stand up for herself. This is also a story between a mother and daughter,” Anu says.
A Tamilian who grew up in Delhi, and is married to a Malayali, Anu says she is most comfortable making films in Hindi.
“I grew up with Hindi films though I was exposed to a lot of Tamil cinema in my childhood. But in more ways than one, Hindi has been my primary language. I don’t know, for example, how to write dialogues in Tamil. But I would love to explore Tamil cinema. And Waiting was set in Kerala, because I understand the milieu," she says.