Amidst the somewhat frenetic first ten minutes of Anu Menon's Shakuntala Devi, released recently on Amazon Prime Video, there's a lovely little scene featuring young Shakuntala (no more than 6 or 7 years old) and her mother. We've just seen how Shakuntala's father exploits her surreal mathematical skills, keeping her out of school so that she can do more (paid) math shows every week. When the little girl expresses her displeasure, her mother steps in and says she shouldn't speak ill of her appa (father). "He's not my appa, I'm his appa," young Shakuntala declares. "In other kids' homes, appa's the one who works and earns the money that runs the household." Soon after, Shakuntala's sister Sharada tells her, "Tu bohot badi aadmi banegi" (You'll become a big and powerful man), only for the former to retort that she'll become a powerful woman (Sharada reminds her there's no such thing as a powerful woman).
Vidya Balan in a still from Shakuntala Devi
Shakuntala's rebellion is notable not just because she's a child, but also because she quickly reaches a point in this conversation (namely, gender roles vis-Ã -vis economic heft, who gets to be the 'man of the house' et cetera) which 'progressive' Bollywood protagonists of yore wouldn't have reached before the interval, at least. Her genius is being exploited, her childhood sacrificed and she knows it.
The grown-up Shakuntala, of course, is played by Vidya Balan, which makes this scene even more significant. Because over the last decade or, Balan's body of work " The Dirty Picture (2011), Kahaani (2012), Bobby Jasoos (2014), Tumhari Sulu (2017), Mission Mangal (2019) and now Shakuntala Devi (2020) " has been Bollywood's primary site of engagement with female genius (I use the word 'genius' in a broad sense here, and not just for savants like Shakuntala Devi).
In these films, Balan's characters happen to be very, very good at one thing apiece " spy to private detective to radio jockey to the proverbial rocket scientist, these characters are forever negotiating the terms and conditions of their genius with society. While this is prima facie a progressive project, not all of these films end up with progressive victories, as we shall see.
Level One: Genius, hidden in plain sight
Towards the beginning of the decade, Balan played two characters whose genius had to be hidden in plain sight, so to speak (>from this point on, this piece has heavy spoilers for Balan's movies).
First, in Kahaani (2012), she played Vidya Bagchi, a heavily pregnant London-based woman who comes to Kolkata in search of her missing husband, who appears to have been a lookalike for a dangerous terrorist called Milan Damji. Everybody, from the kindly Inspector Satyaki (Parambrata Chatterjee) to the grouchy Intelligence Bureau DIG Khan (Nawazuddin Siddiqui), underestimates her ("harmless hai", Khan tells his boss on the phone at one point). By the end of the film, it is revealed that Vidya was never pregnant in the first place " she was using a prosthetic belly. She ditches the belly in a shocking moment during the film's climax (which is scored to the sounds of a loud Durga Puja procession) and uses the ensuing confusion to kill Milan, who was her real target all along. She was a 'civilian spy', trained to infiltrate and take down the enemy, which she does rather easily in the end.
Still from Kahaani | YouTube
The film lays it on thick with the Durga Puja imagery, hammering home the point about motherhood and vengeance. For Kahaani, Vidya's genius (ie her spying skills) must be reinforced by the perfect cover " the social capital and vastly better-than-normal behaviour afforded to an expecting mother (the kind that most other women would never receive in a patriarchal society). Vidya's disguise, then, can be read as a strategic concession to patriarchy. By dragging along a fake belly for weeks, months on end, she has lost a small battle but will soon win the war.
The second character from this early phase is Reshma/Silk from The Dirty Picture, a kind of amalgam of the real-life actresses Disco Shanti and Silk Smitha, both of whom appeared in a string of erotic films in the 1980s and 90s. For obvious reasons, even when Reshma is at the height of her fame and financial success, she isn't a respectable figure. Critics, her colleagues and even the men who watch her late night shows, distance themselves from her in the morning " her films, her persona is thus 'hidden', tucked away far from 'polite society'. Suryakant, the established superstar who helps her gain a foothold in the industry, even tells her, "You're everybody's dirty secret".
A still from Dirty Picture
It's often said (with good reason) that Indian men are prisoners to the Madonna-whore complex " perceiving women either as debauched prostitutes or hallowed, capital-M Mothers. Well, Vidya and Reshma represent the Madonna and the whore, respectively. Damned if they do negotiate with patriarchy "Vidya, despite the sympathy her belly generates, has to put up with a lot of patronising BS from Khan and company. And damned if they don't " Silk/Reshma's stardom fades soon after her powerful male allies cut the cord.
Level Two: Genius, interrupted by domesticity
A pair of films from the mid-2010s marks the second phase of Balan's career "Bobby Jasoos (2014) and my personal favourite among her films, Tumhari Sulu (2017).
In these films, the genius is no longer hidden " in the 'ghare/baire' (home/outside) duality of Bollywood women, these women manage to carve a very public niche for themselves. Traditional gender roles are then weaponised against their careers, with varying degrees of success.
In Bobby Jasoos, Balan plays Bilqis 'Bobby' Ahmed, the titular private detective. Bobby is a young woman from a middle-class Muslim family from Old Hyderabad's Moghalpura area. Her folks are kind but largely orthodox, especially her father (Rajendra Gupta) who does not approve of her budding detective business. Throughout the film, her family pressurising her to quit being a private investigator is a major plot point " how will your sisters get married, they argue, if the boy's family knows you are up to god-knows-what every night.
Bobby, therefore, is invested in covertness twice over: from her family, as well as the rest of the world, for she's a master of disguise. The film's poster shows Balan in a variety of male disguises, including a Hindu fortune-teller (jyotish) and a Muslim beggar wearing a skullcap, and a fakir. These are society's equivalent of 'stock images', ever-present at the fringes but never someone you would know personally. By 'inhabiting' these bodies, Bobby marks herself, a female private detective, one amongst their ranks " people who both exist and don't.
Tumhari Sulu sees Balan playing a housewife (Sulochana or 'Sulu' to her husband Ashok) who becomes an RJ through pure chance " and realises that she is bloody good at it. However, her formerly genteel husband Ashok (Manav Kaul, superb) and her meddlesome, conservative twin sisters Aradhana and Kalapana, soon ask her to quit her job " they say it's leading her to neglect her duties as a wife and a mother. Much of the narrative tension in the film derives from this.
Like with Bobby Jasoos, the genius here blossoms in the public eye " or the ear, for in Sulu's case for people can hear but not see her. To further complicate matters, Sulu's calling card as an RJ is her full-throated, seductive voice; a simple, sultry 'Hello' is all it takes to identify her. And like with Bobby, domesticity almost catches up with her. By the end of Bobby Jasoos, we see that Bobby's marriage has been fixed, albeit to a kind man she already kinda likes (Ali Fazal).
Tumhari Sulu, however, is a fairly self-conscious fairytale, and so it has a bit of a deus ex machina ending. Sulu quits " but secures her office's nighttime tiffin contract for her husband Ashok. He now manages the couple's tiffin business at night, driving their son around with him " and drops Sulu off at her RJ job at night. For me this was wish fulfilment par excellence, and the perfect way to resolve Sulu's narrative dilemma.
Level Three: The public genius, unshackled
When you see Shakuntala Devi, you realise just how much of a fairytale Tumhari Sulu really was. Because Shakuntala faces many of the same parenting dilemmas as Sulu, only their resolutions are vastly different.
Shakuntala's fame, unlike Sulu's, comes with facial recall " people know who she is, what this world-famous mathematician looks like. Strangers come up to her at restaurants and ask for autographs. And yet, their troubles are much the same: like Sulu, Shakuntala too is accused of being a bad mother repeatedly. Not just that, the diagnosis is the same in both cases: we are told that she is a bad mother because she devotes too much time and attention to her genius (ie her career).
The last scene in Tumhari Sulu sees Sulu's new, on-the-move world inside of a car"her husband with their new tiffins business driving, her young son doing his homework in the back seat. In the fairytale, the world bends to accommodate genius. In Shakuntala (which is based on a real-life story), however, the mathematician tries and fails to do exactly this several times " when she takes her daughter along for her globetrotting math shows, the teenager soon turns against her mother and runs away. Even her very progressive Bengali husband (Jisshu) tells her she's being a bad mother, in a fit of rage.
By the end of the film, this tension is never fully resolved, but Shakuntala's daughter acknowledges that her mother was a force of nature, and largely misunderstood in her time. I never saw her like a woman, the daughter tells her, only like a mother. There is a 'celebratory' montage showing us Shakuntala's flamboyant ways, on and off the stage.
For me, this is the biggest takeaway from Shakuntala Devi. For so much of Balan's career, her character's genius negotiated (often in vain) with patriarchy in different ways and in different settings, as we've seen. In Mission Mangal, we actually backslid a little, through that godawful scene where Balan's character figures out a new formula for fuel efficiency while frying puris " genius not despite, but because of patriarchy, we are supposed to believe.
Shakuntala Devi, however, never loses, as Balan reminds us during the film's climax. She's an in-your-face genius; her triumphs are unabashedly loud and in-your-face " no quarter given. No surprises, then, that Shakuntala Devi feels like a watershed moment. This is arguably the most gifted actress working in mainstream Bollywood right now, and Shakuntala Devi is her finest role till date.