Vidya Balan Excels as a Flawed Shakuntala Devi. But the Question Remains: Can Women Have It All?

Varnika Gupta
·4-min read

Mothers have always been viewed as self-sacrificing, God-like beings dedicated to domestic duties and seldom having a life outside home. Portrayal of mothers on the big-screen has also stuck to this fashion.

Lately however, a few filmmakers have been attempting to show mothers as multi-dimensional human beings, with career ambitions and dreams of their own. Kangana Ranaut-starrer Panga (2020) by Ashwini Iyer Tiwari had succeeded in this effort to a great extent, and now another movie – this time a biopic- attempts to do the same.

Vidya Balan excels as Shakuntala Devi in the biopic of the woman renowned as the 'Human Computer.'
Vidya Balan excels as Shakuntala Devi in the biopic of the woman renowned as the 'Human Computer.'

Released on Amazon Prime on July 31, Shakuntala Devi, is filmmaker Anu Menon’s attempt to understand how a world-renowned math genius would have struggled between her ambitions to conquer the world and her duties as a mother.

Also Read: Shakuntala Devi’s Advice

A colourful woman

One of the biggest wins of Shakuntla Devi, undoubtedly, is giving us a female character that is vibrant, confident and unapologetic about her ways and jest for life. Shakuntala Devi – the eponymous protagonist of the film - is fiercely aware of her brilliance and never shies away from flaunting it; she laughs out loud, cracks jokes about taking multiple lovers, challenges norms, revels in the glory of her enigma, and doesn’t believe or conforms to ‘being nice because she is a woman.’

She has a quirky sense of humor, often says outrageous things, flaunts the fact that she has money. Yet, she is entertaining and charming. Nowhere in the film do we dislike Shakuntala Devi, the persona. Even when she is unreasonable (like in a few instances with her daughter), Vidya Balan’s stellar performance makes you relate to her.

The 'real' Shakuntala Devi (pictured) died in Bengaluru in 2013.
The 'real' Shakuntala Devi (pictured) died in Bengaluru in 2013.

In fact, Vidya carries the movie on her shoulders – even in the portions where the writing is weak – ably supported by Sanya Malhotra. Just like she was ‘entertainment’ on The Dirty Picture (2011), or maternal love on Paa (2009), or revenge on Kahaani (2012), Vidya is , well, Shakuntala Devi here – when Shakuntala says, “Why should I be normal when I can be amazing,” you hear (and thank the universe for) Vidya Balan, the phenomenal actress.

Also Read: Tumhari Vidya: The ‘Kahaani’ of a Fearless and Fabulous Superstar

Of mothers and daughters

The film, though, seems conflicted on where it stands on the “working mother”, it shows the unnecessary burden of perfection the society has placed on women, especially mothers, through some interesting one-liners like “Why do men always want women to need them”, and “Aadmi kyu, main to duniya ki sabsi badi auarat banungi”(I will be the most successful woman in the world). But by the end of the movie, you get the feeling that may be nobody can have it all in the conventional sense; but what matters is that we define ‘having it all’ for ourselves.

The film begins with a disclaimer: “Based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter, Anupama Banerji.” This is perhaps both the strength and the shortcoming of the film. Unlike Shashi from English Vinglish or Jaya from Panga, it sometimes becomes difficult to understand what’s going on with Shakuntala Devi – the mother. Her journey as a new mother to working mother, and her mix bags of emotions with motherhood – from being insecure, to being controlling, to understanding and eventually realizing that she too had judged her own mother too harshly – seems rushed.

The film also misses out on an opportunity to elaborate on Shakuntala Devi authoring the first-ever book on homosexuality in India, a fact many would have been unaware of till watching the movie. There is little clarity on what went behind the book, and her later decision to contest elections in the 1970s, which she eventually loses.

However, writers Anu Menon (also the Director) and Nayanika Mahtani make Shakuntala a dream which every girls would look up to – especially when she is doing math, with poise and excitement, unapologetically savoring her own brilliance. Every girl ever told that “Girls are not good at math,” will now have a fitting reply.

Also Read: We Need to Have More Women Who are Decision Makers: Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari

(Edited by Athira Nair)

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