The film, directed by Anu Menon and released on Prime Video last week, is a biopic on the internationally renowned math genius and ‘human computer’, Shakuntala Devi (1929-2013), who was born and brought up in Bangalore. The movie focuses on portraying Devi as a strong, independent woman who defied convention and lived life on her own terms. It must be praised for depicting Devi with all the flaws and complexities of her personality, instead of simply praising her for her exceptional mind. However, there are some moments where the movie is overtly preachy, and some other aspects that it seems to completely ignore.
Marriage, Motherhood and Intergenerational Trauma
A central theme in the film is the notion of motherhood. We see that Devi’s drive to be independent and strong-willed comes from her anger towards her mother, who was timid and submissive to her father. She is so determined to never become submissive like her mother that she instead becomes overbearing and self-centered like her father (whom she accuses of being selfish and callous). After Devi gives birth to a daughter, Anu, she has a hard time balancing her desire to travel the world doing math shows on the one hand and attempting to be a ‘good’, attentive mother to Anu on the other hand. Her husband is supportive of her career and is more than willing to take care of their daughter at home while she travels; not that a man must be praised for doing this, but it does show that her marriage was not an unaccommodating or ‘unfair’ arrangement.
The film does a good job of showing us how childhood traumas and dysfunctional parent-child relationships are re-enacted and continued inter-generationally.
However, Shakuntala Devi wants it all; she wants to travel the globe but also wants to be with her daughter. She asks her husband and child to tag along with her on her trips, which her husband is understandably not enthusiastic about. To this she responds, ‘if I was a man, wouldn’t his wife and child be expected to follow him around for his career?’. But this is not (and should not be) a convincing argument to the audience. If we are trying to break out of an oppressive, unequal marriage structure, then a simple reversal of roles is obviously not the solution; this doesn’t change anything for better.
Even if we did take the ‘what if’ scenario seriously, one would imagine that a man would be okay with travelling the world and not being able to constantly enjoy his child’s company at the same time. Neither a man nor woman can ‘have it all’; but the crucial difference is that patriarchal society places unreasonable expectations on women to be the ‘perfect’ mother/wife and prioritize this over their career, while a man is allowed to prioritize his career over family. This social conditioning makes Devi feel undue guilt for being an ‘absentee’ mother and in her attempt to be a better one, she in fact ends up damaging her relationship with her daughter.
The movie repeatedly uses this argument of ‘If I was a man, would [fill in the blank] not be acceptable?’. While this does make viewers reflect and rethink their gendered presumptions and biases, there are some moments in the film where this argument falls flat. For example, this does not justify Devi dragging her daughter along with her on world tours when the child is in need of a stable childhood and schooling. It does not justify her expectation that Anu and her husband should continue to live with her in London instead of living separately in another country.
This portrayal of ‘genius’ implies that exceptional talent is not valuable or worthy unless it can be monetized. Her intellect is instrumentalized and completely transformed into a form of ‘capital’. It simply becomes another means of making a profit
The film does a good job of showing us how childhood traumas and dysfunctional parent-child relationships are re-enacted and continued inter-generationally. It shows how easily we can become that which we hate and, in turn, inflict our suffering on others. Anu recognizes this cycle of damage and explains that she does not want to become a mother because of it.
Monetization of “Genius”
However, one problem that the movie doesn’t recognise is the monetization of talent. From an early age, her father uses her exceptional math abilities to make money and as an adult, she continues to do the same. Devi’s constant focus on doing hundreds of shows around the world and growing rich from them is portrayed as unproblematic; as simply her being an ‘ambitious’ woman. But this portrayal of ‘genius’ implies that exceptional talent is not valuable or worthy unless it can be monetized. Her intellect is instrumentalized and completely transformed into a form of ‘capital’. It simply becomes another means of making a profit.
Shakuntala Devi was no doubt a gifted mind and a formidable personality, who took on a patriarchal world where women’s intelligence is often underestimated and overlooked. However, we must also ask; was it maths that she really loved or was it the fame and attention that she valued more? Surely recognition is important, but why should it be everything? Why is there so much emphasis on her ‘genius’ being publicized and attributed celebrity status? Most mathematicians and scientists, many of the brightest minds in the world, live and die in anonymity after all.
The film, however, places more emphasis on the performance of her talent and popular praise rather than on her genius itself.
Devi’s longing, in the movie, to travel around the world and gain praise seems to be driven for the most part by her ego rather than her passion for maths. We must be careful not to equate egotism and selfish ambition with the notion of being a strong, independent woman.
The main takeaway from Shakuntala Devi should be its critique of motherhood – how women who have children are socially conditioned to assess their self-worth in terms of how good of a mother they are, more than anything else. Their individual identity is often subordinated to their role as a mother; this is not the same for men who become fathers. The movie must be applauded for clearly bringing out this disparity and for competently tackling a complex issue such as motherhood and its relation to gender equality, individual identity, and childhood trauma.