'Shakuntala Devi' Explores The Complex Mother-Daughter Dynamic

·6-min read

The scheming mother-in-law. The strict patriarch. The suffering mother. The doting ‘maa’ whose ‘haath ka khana’ is always transcendental. The bad narcissistic mother. While these tropes served a purpose in Indian cinema of yore and still reflect some ground realities - the flawed mother whose ambition is not demonised has been largely missing from the mainstream discourse.

Vidya Balan’s Shakuntala Devi is not a rags-to-riches child prodigy story. It’s not a math wizard biopic that ticks all the boxes but it’s a bracing portrayal of an unapologetic mother who wanted it all. Sacrifice is not her strong suit. Our cultural vision of motherhood is informed by myths of a mother’s unconditional love.

The film, unfolding from the perspective of Shankuntala Devi’s daughter - Anupama Banerjee, does not shy away from depicting the ‘mother wound’.

Defined by psychologists as a ‘wound’ suffered by a daughter, owing to a lack of ‘adequate mothering’ or not being emotionally attuned and available to one as a child, it is often a generational repetition where her own mother may have experienced emotional absence.

The film written by Anu Menon and Nayanika Mahtani (and dialogue by Ishita Moitra) begins with Sanya Malhotra’s (essaying the role of Shakuntala Devi’s daughter, Anu) bitter revelations about her mother. She is set to file a criminal case against her mother in London. It then takes us back to Guttahalli, Bengaluru in the 1930s, where we see Shakuntala Devi extracting cube roots of large numbers rapidly as a child - the daughter of a circus performer. She goes on to exhibit her skills as a performer at her father’s road shows, supporting her family financially at a young age and harbouring resentment towards her father. But what troubles her deeply is her mother’s helplessness and her inability to stand up to her father and vows never to be like her.

Later when she becomes the globetrotting sari-clad calculating prodigy, hailed as the ‘human computer’, she distances herself from her family. Her own daughter Anu in contrast begrudges the limelight, has ‘smaller dreams’, vows never to be a mother and ‘divorces’ Shakuntala Devi.

According to Rojske Hasseldine, a renowned mother-daughter relationship therapist, this conflict is central to women understanding themselves. Mothers and daughters do not connect with each other in a cultural vacuum. Life events, gender roles, restrictive labels and inherited behaviour patterns shape this dynamic in a world that upholds motherhood as instinctual performance. The Anu Menon directorial fittingly takes a generational approach to this parallel. The film’s kernel lies in its dialogue, penned by Ishita Moitra. It mines personal history to dissect the scars of the past.

Moitra says, “The idea was to depict damaging cyclical patterns, the bitterness that is handed down. Shakunta Devi hates her father but she slowly starts turning into him. When her ex-husband gently coaxes her into sending their daughter to a boarding school, she corrects herself. Without the exposition, I tried to underline how we place mothers on a pedestal, while crafting the dialogue. They are not allowed to make mistakes. Like Anu says of her mother, ‘We don’t share a Devi Bhakt relationship’ or how she is not a mother out of books or films. For me, ‘Unishe April’, the Bengali film was a reference. We wanted to stray away from the male gaze of the nurturing mother, who always puts others first. Anu, Nayanika and the co-producer Shikhaa are mothers while Vidya, Sanya and I are not. We discussed a lot about what motherhood means to us and how those ideas don’t find enough representation. We didn’t want to miss this opportunity that the biopic presented to delve into a mother-daughter dynamic.”

Beyond the mathematical wizardry, the film weaves in its mosaic, Shakuntala Devi’s unfettered worldview with lines like ‘Hum Insaan hai. Ped nahi. Hamare Paas Pair Hain, Jade Nahin. Bolo Kyun? Taki Hum Duniya Ghum Sake’. Shakuntala Devi is unafraid of doing things her way. In the telling of her mother’s story, we see a daughter reframing her narrative of motherhood as her perspective evolves in the film. Anu begins to think of her mother as a woman with her own wounds, who was born and raised in a different generation with different values and exploitative family relationships as well as a larger-than-life genius who dared to break this cycle.

Hasseldine employs mother-daughter history maps to unravel detrimental generation patterns and cultural beliefs.

She posits that the inter-generational silencing of women’s needs limits their ability to advocate for themselves in their personal relationships and workplaces, perpetuating gender stereotypes. This dynamic renders them invisible, and makes them hanker after attention. The inability to honestly ask for what they need results in emotionally manipulative behaviour. If the mother-daughter attachment disruption is healed and a new emotional language is embedded, it can build a wall of resistance against family members who are threatened by women claiming their rights and change women’s lives in patriarchal societies. “These mothers and daughters are essentially saying - With us, it must end.”

Menon and Mahatani’s script does not rely on villainising other characters to highlight the struggles in Shakuntala Devi’s journey.

When Anu questions her own role as a new mother, labelling herself a bad one, her mother-in-law says, ‘Har Maa Buri Maa Hoti Hai’, demolishing the ideal of a perfect mother. Somewhere towards the end of the film, Paritosh, Shakuntala’s ex-husband says, ‘To Love Shakuntala is to let her be’. The resolution seems to borrow from this line where the daughter’s healing lies in seeing her mother as she is and not as the one she would have liked her to be, while also drawing boundaries. In the end, when she sees her mother’s earnestly curated ‘blackbook’ with her beaming in all the pictures, she questions her harsh appraisal of her childhood as ‘terrible’.

According to Roni Cohen-Sandler, Ph.D, psychologist and co-author of I’m Not Mad, I Just Hate You! A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict, it is healthy for mothers and daughters to have big disagreements. “The bottom line is that moms and daughters can be really close but they’re not the same people. A daughter doesn’t have to change her choices to please her mom; and the mom doesn’t have to change her opinions, either,” says Cohen-Sandler. In a further perspective, socio-sexual historian Nancy Friday says - ‘When I stopped seeing my mother with the eyes of a child, I saw the woman who helped me give birth to myself.’

Also Read: 'Shakuntala Devi' Sensitizes Us to Humane Aspects of Numbers

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