National Award-winning actress Vidya Balan has played some of the most iconic roles over her 15 years in the Indian film industry. It is no surprise then that the Bollywood actress was writer-director Anu Menon’s first choice to play India’s mathematical genius – Shakuntala Devi, fondly known as the Human Computer for her mathematical prowess.
Balan admitted coming face to face with some of her own thoughts on womanhood during the course of inhabiting the role of the maths genius for the film. In a freewheeling conversation entitled “The Mathematics of Stardom”, alongside author and screenplay writer Nayanika Mathani, the talented actress spoke to Vani Tripathi Tikoo during a recent virtual edition of the 17th Jaipur Literature Festival in London.
It would not be overstating to say that Shakuntala Devi and Balan share many things in common. Both not only paved their own way to success beyond the established norms, but in the actress’ own view, the duo also have a zest of life and desire to live life to the fullest in common.
She reflected on the filming process as not only a celebration of the Guinness World Record holder’s life but of her personality as a whole.
“You see this person as a human being and not glorifying her. The fact that she embraced her flaws and was so unapologetically herself,” said Balan.
The biopic is captured through the lens of Shakuntala Devi’s relationship with her daughter, Anupama Banerji, and attempts to humanise her as a woman and mother. It makes a refreshing change from the way in which mothers are usually portrayed in Hindi cinema, for their supreme sacrifice, unconditional love, and putting family before their own happiness.
“She is a woman who has grown up in sad circumstances but never was a victim. The emotional core of the story is realising your mother is not only just your mother, but she also has her own dreams, baggage, and journey which may be different from yours,” explains Balan.
Much of the virtual discussion revolved around an exploration of womanhood, a centrepiece of the film.
“I think with Shakuntala Devi, as it is with every other woman, you expect her to put everyone else before her own needs. We’ve all been brought up to believe that you should be the last priority in your life, if at all.
“But she didn’t follow the norms, she put herself first and I think that there was that much more judgment even on the part of her daughter, who was looking at the mothers around. It almost seemed like her friends’ mothers treated them like they were the apple of their existence but not for her mother; it wasn’t true. Because we tend to judge women very harshly, we do the same to ourselves.”
True to life
Having played real-life characters in past films such as ‘The Dirty Picture’ and ‘No One Killed Jessica’, Balan was well-equipped to take on the challenges of portraying the math genius, which she jokes, thankfully did not include having to become a human computer herself.
“The biggest challenge was the maths show itself because unfortunately we all associate maths with being slightly boring and therefore anyone who does maths is seen as being straight-jacket or not interesting and so forth.
“But Shakuntala Devi broke that with her shows. The way the role was written, based on the research and after watching her videos, I realised she had a certain flair; her maths shows were like magic shows.”
The strength of the script meant that her work to make the character emotionally relatable was made much easier: “It was all there, I just had to chew into it.”
“I was so thrilled to know she loved her food, she loved her wine and she loved dancing. Things like this make her so human, under the emotional rollercoaster.”
Beyond the genius
To the world, Shakuntala Devi is the “human computer” but beyond that Balan highlights that she felt very passionately about her daughter, loved the man she loved, and also felt very passionately about her parents, which is why she carried such anger towards them.
The conversation formed one of the centrepieces of the Jaipur Literature Festival’s London chapter, held virtually due to the coronavirus lockdown restrictions. The parent festival is held annually in the Pink City of Jaipur, bringing together a wide array of authors and celebrities over several sessions.
by Preeti Bali