‘Shakuntala Devi’ review: Vidya Balan elevates a spritzy take on an enigma

Her name conjures up astronomical numbers whizzing past mathematical operations inside a seemingly quantum-compute propelled brain that either explode or shrink the resulting digits in a blink. That brain and the persona enveloping it have remained as enigmatic as the newspaper advertisements that came out exhorting limited-availability appointments with Shakuntala Devi to consult on what the future held. 

Vidya Balan mostly drives Jisshu Sengupta. Crazy.

Director Anu Menon, writing with Nayanika Mahtani, doesn’t make the workings of Madam Shakuntala’s gee-whiz-brain any less enigmatic. Any questions that you may have are swiftly laid to rest in a scene where doctors admit to the lady — played by Vidya Balan — that they just can’t fathom how that organ works. That out of the way, Shakuntala Devi is, as the prologue card suggests, a look at the human computing wonder’s life albeit from her daughter’s view master of experiences. Which means that the view’s a limited one, and as if to make up for this, the director chooses a spritz-mode to narrate her story. The movie breezes through its subject’s life, beginning with her life in Bangalore in the 1930s, as a precocious kid who knows how to whip numbers with the same velocity that she can throw a blunt word or two to her financially exploitative father (Prakash Belawadi) or mute-specter of a mother (Ipshita Chakraborty Singh). That Devi yearned for — but never got — a normal childhood haunts her all through, and that aspect comes into play when she wrestles with her maternal and mathematical yearnings. But before that, the movie bounces into her life in London (Sheeba Chaddha as Tarabai, her landlady, is a sheer joy) and the bohemian life she takes to. Most of this is via song-and-dance, and mostly an over-exuberant background score by Karan Kulkarni. 

Sanya Malhotra knows mom Vidya Balan knows best. How to embarrass her.

This also means that some crucial facets of this unpredictable persona are but a clip of how she sacrificed her daughter — Anupama, played with the right angst and guilt by Sanya Malhotra — and her wonder years to ensure she compensates for her own peripatetic childhood. That in doing so she dunks her child through the same trauma is an irony that isn’t lost on her supportive husband Paritosh (an understated, likable Jisshu Sengupta). It is at the altar of this mother-daughter tensile strain that director Menon sacrifices some critical feature maps from Shakuntala Devi’s life — her foray into politics to deliver stump speeches against Indira Gandhi, or her take on the gay community, for instance, are either a fleeting scene or an eye-roll from where Anupama sits. Where the movie could have used some quietude and pause to dwell on relationships — including those that involve Anupama’s husband Ajay (Mr. Prolificus of 2020, Amit Sadh, quiet, effective) — it gets in comedy and fast-cut scenes, as if in a hurry. 

Vidya Balan is the highlight of Shakuntala Devi.

But Shakuntala Devi remains a fascinating watch, gets as it does the humane side of a celeb who’s been given the inanimate sobriquet of a computer. All these years, prefixing ‘human’ to that name didn’t make her so. Vidya Balan’s terrific act does. In her does Shakuntala come alive, springing with impetuous insolence and arrogance, a desperate, cyclonic maternal force who, even as she nurses her wounds long locked away inside a steel box, will stir up the devil if need be, for her offspring. Even if that means flaunting her three-inch C-section scar as validation — and justification — for all that she does. Vidya Balan’s performance cuts deepest, leaving behind a mark that’s as permanent as the one that brought her subject’s most important person into this world.    

Shakuntala Devi (2020) on IMDb Movie data powered by IMDb. All images owned by the producers.

Shakuntala is streaming on Amazon Prime and is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years).
Shakuntala Devi
Director Anu Menon Time 2h 7min
Writer Nayanika Mahtani
Stars Vidya Balan, Sanya Malhotra, Jisshu Sengupta, Amit Sadh
Genres Biopic, Drama

Watch the trailer of Shakuntala Devi here.