Ms Representation: The many faces of a genius
This weekly column is a rumination on how women are portrayed in cinema and this week the author discusses the emotional struggles of a successful woman in Shakuntala Devi
I quite liked Anu Menon’s, Shakuntala Devi. With a tour de force from Vidya Balan, the film makes a strong point about the rampant deification of women (especially mothers) in our society. My reaction to the film was in conflict with social media opinion that wasn’t exactly laudatory of this film. Now that I have seen it, I am curious. What did people have a problem with exactly?
Most reviews had a problem with Shakuntala Devi’s mathematical prowess being ‘one of many things’ in her life. They asked why while men were getting glorified puff-pieces for biopics, women achievers were getting burdened with relationship struggles. Anu Menon makes it clear that Shakuntala Devi is “based on a true story, as seen through the eyes of her daughter, Anupama Banerji". Shakuntala Devi’s genius is shown, but the creator doesn’t stop there. The film makes the rare journey into the grey and captures her flaws too. In a world that allows no space for women in between ‘angels’ and ‘sluts’, this exploration of Shakuntala’s greys is important. This neither diminishes her success nor makes her story just about motherhood. Should celebrating one’s professional success mean ignoring their flawed personal life? And shouldn’t we be criticising the white-washing, instead of seeking it?
Our films glorify motherhood to borderline annoyance. Amma sentiment dialogues are common across languages and industries. If MGR said ‘Thaaiyillamal Naan Illai’, a Shashi Kapoor said, “Mere paas maa hai.” But take a look at who these mothers are. They are generic to the level that even if they were replaced with another stick-figure, you wouldn’t notice. I remember actor Sriranjani, who often plays the role of a mother, telling me that most of her character briefs have no detail, except that the woman is a mother to someone. The actor, I remember, added that she would ask questions out of personal interest to prepare herself for the character.
And looking further into Shakuntala Devi, the mother-daughter relationship is under-explored territory in our cinema anyway. Apart from a rare Kannathil Muthamittal or a Nil Battey Sannata, our films barely fill a mother-daughter relationship with the complexity that can be seen in Shakuntala Devi. The film, in fact, begins with this observation: Ma is synonymous with sacrifice. But why? Doesn’t a child have two parents?
I loved the fearless Shakuntala Devi for her many questions. “Why do men always want women to need them?” “Why be normal when I can be amazing?” “If you were a world-renowned mathematician, wouldn’t you expect me to travel around with you?” “Do women stop having brains after becoming mothers?” The last one is particularly significant because a woman is often defined by the gender role she assumes: A woman is asked to forget her professional ambitions once she becomes a wife, and more so when she becomes a mother: She foregoes promotions, holds no hobbies, and needs to seek permission if she wished to pursue her career. But both Shakuntala and Anupama don’t do this. Even if Anupama grows to harbor angst against her mother’s ambition, she understands it better when facing a similar situation herself.
Patterns form an important part of Shakuntala Devi’s math and life. While she was breaking down long numbers, and discovering magic squares, she was inadvertently passing down trauma she had faced as a child. Shakuntala isn’t flawless: She does not pause to listen, she thinks that a ‘three-inch surgical scar gives her the right to own her daughter’, and as extension, her dreams. Both Shakuntala and Anupama compared their mothers to a flattened image of an 'ideal mother', instead of attempting to understand them as people. And it takes them both years, and many hundreds of arguments to comprehend their mothers as humans with shortcomings.
Much like its protagonist, the film isn’t perfect too. The punches land, but robs the film of significant silences. Despite its weaknesses, this is an important story and film. Many women grow up hating their mothers, only to later realise that they are the strongest people in their corner. The world saw Shakuntala as only a genius, her daughter saw her only as a mother. The film puts both together, and it’s time we saw women the same way.