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Film review: Vidya Balan tries too hard in 'Shakuntala Devi'

Some of the jokes fall flat and Balan's forced South Indian accent is also a fail in this biopic of the mathematical genius

Vidya Balan in a scene from 'Shakuntala Devi'. IMDb
Vidya Balan in a scene from 'Shakuntala Devi'. IMDb

Bollywood actress Vidya Balan and mathematical genius Shakuntala Devi have a few things in common. They both paved their own way to success, questioned the norms of society and, as shown in the eponymous biopic on the mathematician, lived life on their own terms.

It was not a surprise, then, that Balan, an actress known for tackling a variety of roles, was chosen to play Devi in the film. And while the trailer held promise, the movie doesn’t quite add up.

For the uninitiated, Devi was an Indian writer, astrologer and "human computer", whose mathematical talents were recognised in the 1982 edition of Guinness World Records.

Directed by Anu Menon, the film, released on Amazon Prime Video, charts Devi’s journey and rise to fame from humble beginnings in Bangalore to global fame, travelling around the world to cities including Paris, Rome, San Francisco and London, to display her calculating abilities. She was able to mentally calculate large figures faster than computers, hence earning her the title of “the human computer”.

In the film, we see her father, who recognised her talent very young, take her to different schools in the area to perform “maths shows”. She starts to detest her parents for it and in the 1950s, moves to London, where she becomes famous and eventually meets her future husband, Paritosh Banerji (played by Jisshu Sengupta). The two move back to Calcutta in India, where they start a family.

Vidya Balan and Jisshu Sengupta in a scene from 'Shakuntala Devi'. IMDb
Vidya Balan and Jisshu Sengupta in a scene from 'Shakuntala Devi'. IMDb

Devi's daughter, Anupama (played by Dangal actress Sanya Malhotra), grows up to resent her mother, as she is made to travel the world with her for shows. But she hates not being able to see her father or be rooted to a single place to go to school. Anupama expresses her wish to “divorce” Devi (who had also cut off her own mother when she left home), and files criminal charges against her, which are eventually settled.

On the surface, the film is about Devi, but it also tackles a complicated familial relationship. Neither the mathematician nor her daughter want to be like their mothers, but eventually realise that their matriarchs are more than simply this and should also be considered as such.

And while the film zeroes in on some of the lesser-known aspects of Devi’s life, it doesn’t feel very impactful. Even though the focus is on Balan, who comes across as easy-going, she seems to be trying too hard in the film. Some of the jokes fall flat, as does her forced South Indian accent. Some of the scenes also feel as though they feature overacting on her part.

The music is not much to write home about, either, and none of the other characters make a lasting impression apart from Malhotra, who does not disappoint.

If you discount that, Shakuntala Devi is a breezy weekend watch that offers a glimpse into the life of a woman who made numbers seem like magic.

Updated: August 3, 2020 11:09 AM

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