Our country has produced a lot of genius minds who have made India proud all across the world with their talent and determination. One such personality is Shakuntala Devi. Most people don’t know much about her except that she was hailed as the ‘Human Computer’. Director Anu Menon, co-director of the path-breaking web series FOUR MORE SHOTS PLEASE, bases her next film on the adventurous life of this iconic lady. So does SHAKUNTALA DEVI manage to entertain and awe the audiences? Or does it fail to entice? Let’s analyse.
SHAKUNTALA DEVI is the story of a mathematical genius and her complicated relationship with her daughter. Shakuntala Devi (Araina Nand) is 5 years old and lives in Bangalore with her family. Her brother Srinivas (Ahan Nirbhan) discovers that she can solve complicated maths problems easily. Shakuntala’s father (Prakash Belawadi) realizes that he can do maths shows with her to enthral audiences and thereby earn money. He starts doing so, depriving Shakuntala of a formal education in school. He justifies it by reasoning that she is too intelligent and sharp for schooling. Shakuntala agrees but begins to hate her father for his selfish agenda. She also gets irritated with her mother (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh) for not standing up against her father. Shakuntala’s closest family member is her paraplegic sister Sharada (Jiya Singh). Sharada passes away one day because of lack of medical care. Her father argues that he didn’t have enough money to take her to the doctor. This enrages Shakuntala. Two decades later, Shakuntala (Vidya Balan) moves to London, hoping that she can use her talent to make money. After initial rejections, she finally gets a chance to do her own shows thanks to Javier (Luca Calvani), a member of a mathematical society. He also fine-tunes her English and makes her presentable. In no time, Shakuntala becomes renowned and she is able to buy her own house in the English capital. This is when Javier decides to leave her as he believes that she doesn’t need him anymore. A year later, she meets a divorced IAS official Paritosh Banerji (Jisshu Sengupta) in Bombay and they fall in love. They get married and soon have a daughter, Anupama (Sanya Malhotra). At first, Shakuntala gives up on her work and becomes a full-time mother. Soon, she begins to miss doing shows and travelling around the world. Paritosh encourages her to follow her dreams and assures that he’ll take care of Anupama. Shakuntala begins her tours once again. All is going well until one day, Shakuntala learns that Anupama’s first word is ‘Daddy’. Shakuntala realizes that she shouldn’t be away from her daughter. Hence, she decides to take Anupama with her on her tours. Paritosh protests but she doesn’t listen. Anupama starts living like a nomad with Shakuntala and begins to miss her father and a normal routine life. Shakuntala, however, encourages her to enjoy the life she’s living and she even uses Anupama for her work purposes. Slowly and gradually, Anupama begins to despise Shakuntala just the way Shakuntala had begun to abhor her own mother. What happens next forms the rest of the film.
Anu Menon and Nayanika Mahtani's story is quite unique. Many would not know about Shakuntala Devi’s personal life and her rift with her daughter. Anu Menon and Nayanika Mahtani's screenplay is entertaining and the writers have tried their best to ensure the film is as engaging and mainstream as possible, narrative-wise. However, the content can be quite shocking and uncomfortable for our audiences. This is because viewers are accustomed to seeing woman character in a particular way and here, the woman here is shown to be highly progressive, ambitious and breaking all norms. And while doing so, she also gets into the bad books of her ex-husband and daughter. One can’t however deny that it also makes for a refreshing watch. Ishita Moitra's dialogues are sharp and witty.
Anu Menon’s direction is praiseworthy. She keeps the duration in check at 2.07 hours and tries to pack in as much of her life as possible in a neat and concise manner. She adds a lot of entertainment and drama to many proceedings to keep the interest going. And most importantly, she doesn’t make a hagiography. Biopics in Bollywood usually treat their characters with unnecessary reverence. SHAKUNTALA DEVI is a rare biopic that doesn’t do so and highlights her flaws as well. On the flipside, the narrative is complicated. There’s a lot of back-and-forth happening as the film jumps across timelines. A few developments are too quick and some tracks don’t reach a logical conclusion. For instance, Paritosh’s character is forgotten completely in the last 30 minutes.
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SHAKUNTALA DEVI begins on a dramatic note, at a time when the grown-up Anupama announces that she’s going to sue her own mother. It immediately catches attention and makes one curious. The film then goes on a flashback mode depicting Shakuntala’s life as a child and how her mathematical prowess was discovered. The scene where she does her first maths show in a local school is interesting. Things however get better when she moves to London. The scene where she horrifies her male roommates about what she did with her boyfriend brings the house down. Also, the manner in which Javier and Shakuntala get close is cute and makes for a great watch. The sequence where Shakuntala proves the computer wrong and the scene of her first meeting with Paritosh are the other entertaining scenes of the first half. Humour and light-heartedness takes a backseat once Paritosh and Shakuntala fight and Anupama is forced to tag Shakuntala across the world. In the second half, a few scenes become difficult to digest as the mother-daughter relationship turns horribly sour. The tension is broken mid-way in the scene where Shakuntala and Ajay Abhaya Kumar’s (Amit Sadh) parents meet for the first time. The climax is dramatic and justified, though a few developments could have been gradual and more convincing.
SHAKUNTALA DEVI belongs to Vidya Balan without a shred of doubt. She has rarely disappointed and this flick is no exception. She owns the character and her style, comic timing, expression, hearty laugh etc, all contribute in making the performance superlative and award-winning! Sanya Malhotra has a crucial part and though she goes overboard in few confrontational scenes, she gets her act right in most places. She is quite natural in a crucial scene wherein she realizes that she is also becoming like her mother. Amit Sadh lends able support and leaves a huge mark. Jisshu Sengupta is dependable. His is also a challenging character but he succeeds in impressing. Luca Calvani is endearing. Sheeba Chaddha (Tarabai), Prakash Belawadi, Ipshita Chakraborty Singh, Jiya Singh and Ahan Nirbhan are fine. Araina Nand and Spandan Chaturvedi (12-year-old Shakuntala) are confident. Neil Bhoopalam (Dheeraj) is funny in the cameo. Purnendu Bhattacharya (Ajay's father) and Renuka Sharma (Ajay's mother) are fine.
Sachin-Jigar's music doesn’t have a shelf life. 'Pass Nahi Toh Fail Nahi' is played during the end credits and is catchy. 'Rani Hindustani', 'Jhilmil Piya' and 'Paheli' work well in the film but don’t have a lingering effect. Karan Kulkarni's background score is sans complaints. Keiko Nakahara's cinematography is simple and neat. Vintee Bansal and Meenal Agarwal's production design is superlative and the period look comes through well. Niharika Bhasin's costumes are terrific and Shakuntala’s various kinds of dressing styles over the years are depicted beautifully and authentically. Vikram Gaikwad and Shreyas Mhatre's hair and make-up design also adds to the impact. Do It Creative Ltd and Future Works Media Ltd's VFX could have been better. Same goes for Antara Lahiri's editing.
On the whole, SHAKUNTALA DEVI, despite the unconventional subject, works big time due to the execution and Vidya Balan’s award winning performance. Recommended!