For the longest time, I thought of Shakuntala Devi as somewhat of an elusive persona.
While most of us know her for her genius arithmetic skills and record-breaking shows, many are still unaware that she wrote The World of Homosexuals, a seminal book that defined the public perception of gay men in India. So, of course, when streaming giant Amazon Prime Video announced that the film will get a direct release on their service, with popular Bollywood actress Vidya Balan in the lead, I was ecstatic.
Shakuntala Devi’s brilliance was only matched by her eccentricity. And who else but Balan to carry the role in the movie that came out on July 31? One only has to see this archived footage of the OG Devi performing what my dumb brain can only describe as mathematical stunt work. I wish at least one of my teachers was as cool instead of pinching me behind my ears every week .
This and the fact that she conducted meticulous research to write a book like The World of Homosexuals itself makes her an iconic woman deserving of an iconic biopic. The first time I got to read The World of Homosexuals, was thanks to an older gay “friend”, who had a tattered hand-me-down hardcover version. What a wondrous sight for my young gay brain to witness a book that busted myths around homosexuality published way back in 1977 and written by a woman! For many before me, the book has played an important role in helping them find comfort in who they are. Today, it’s tough to purchase the book online. Amazon has her puzzle book series but not this. You can still read it here though.
Through interviews with several gay men in India and abroad, Shakuntala Devi compiled information, and like any genius mathematician, went to work on understanding the metrics behind it all. Through her book, she breaks down the many aspects that affect homosexuals and prevent them from living a full, free life such as archaic laws, religion and societal hatred. She appeals for a more sympathetic approach towards homosexuality, way before we started fighting for our rights openly. Such is the legend of the woman.
I went into the film not knowing much about Devi’s personal life, but left knowing enough to honour her memory. That’s what a decent biopic is supposed to do. But what makes an average biopic epic is how the subject matter is dealt with. And here, the Bollywood bastardisation doesn’t help. Much like Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, so much drama is extracted from the central figure’s personal life that their work and their achievements take a backseat. But while Shakuntala Devi in itself is not a groundbreaking biopic and constantly plays by the numbers and common tropes, it loses out on showcasing something truly mind-blowing about her.
In the 2001 documentary For Straights Only directed by Vismita Gupta-Smith, Shakuntala Devi shares what she feels about the taboo nature of homosexuality in South Asia. She stresses that having married a gay man herself, Paritosh Banerji, she understands the plight of someone living a dual identity, and hence this book is her way of telling people that homosexuality in India is commonplace.
So far, so good.
Then comes this film, where Balan as Devi makes the same claim while promoting the book in a scene. This prompts her daughter to storm out of the bookstore, followed by Devi who tells her daughter that one needs to fabricate details and bring in a personal connection to sell stuff. The topic of her husband’s homosexuality only returns towards the climax, with the said homosexual (Jisshu Sengupta as Banerji) nowhere in sight.
The conflicting narratives can be confusing, given that Anu Banerji, Shakuntala’s daughter, had a key role in sharing her mother’s life stories with the filmmakers. So why is her father’s alleged queerness being totally averted for a film? This is the only thing that irked me about it, because it is so quintessentially Bollywood to walk on eggshells over a character’s orientation. That said, this section of the film is still dealt with seriousness and warmth, at least from Devi’s POV, wherein she calls for understanding homosexuals instead of ostracising them. However, at the same time, the film doesn’t go deeper than the surface level. I would’ve gladly taken two less scenes of Anu screaming at her mother in a posh London suburb for a scene on how Devi went about conducting interviews with gay men for the book. But a lot gets sacrificed to accommodate the mother-daughter angle.
In her introduction to the book, Shakuntala Devi wrote, “My only qualification for writing this book is that I am a human being. And I wish to write about a group, a minority group, of my fellow human beings who have been very little understood, and have been forced to live in ‘half-hiding’ throughout their lives by a society that is merciless towards everything that differs from the statistical norm.” To watch her work be diminished to a minor press conference and a quarrel with her daughter is a major letdown for someone like me, who expected the filmmakers to themselves not fabricate this part of her life to, well, sell this movie.
All in all, this turns out to be regular Bollywood fare that gets elevated thanks to a powerful lead actor and a story about a woman who is extraordinary in ways more than one. If you like mathematics, this film will be a visual treat for you. But if you want to know more about Devi’s work on homosexuals, you’re in for some disappointment. Some problems just end up staying on the board forever, with no one to solve them.
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