Too often in the film “Shakuntala Devi”, which stars Vidya Balan as the genius mathematician who was dubbed The Human Computer, one will hear someone ask: “How does she do it?” That question comes up unfailingly each time she dazzles a new audience with her brilliance, seldom taking a second glance at the blackboard before confidently rattling off the correct answer to a complicated sum, or offering eight and nine-digit responses to cube root problems quicker than the fastest computer.

It is no spoiler to reveal that that question remains unanswered even at the end of the film, despite efforts both by Shakuntala Devi herself, and others, to determine what it is about numbers that turns a switch on inside her.

The film, directed by Anu Menon, is an attempt to understand how Shakuntala’s love for maths, and the glory that accompanied it, informed every aspect of her life, and especially strained her relationship with her daughter.

The clue lies in her early years, as a young girl growing up in Bangalore in the 30s and 40s, robbed of a normal childhood, her brilliance exploited to provide a livelihood for her family, and leaving fissures that will run deep. The screenplay, by Menon and Nayanika Mahtani, moves back and forth over the years like a highlights reel of their subject’s life. Shakuntala’s arrival in London, her fame on the international circuit, a whirlwind romance and subsequent marriage to charming Calcutta bureaucrat Paritosh Banerji (Jisshu Sengupta), and the birth of their daughter Anupama.

Vidya brings a full-bodied feistiness to Shakuntala, and the film stays on course while it’s focused on her love affair with numbers. There’s a real thrill in watching her decimate seemingly impossible calculations with ease and unmistakable swag. But the fractured relationship with her grown-up daughter (Sanya Malhotra) yields some of the film’s dullest scenes. Resentful of her mother’s selfish, stubborn nature Anupama is constantly in battle mode, even with her loving husband (Amit Sadh). It’s all doubly exhausting on account of the pointless back-and-forth structure of the narrative; you’re left to rely on the ladies’ distracting hairstyles to figure out the timeline.

What the film leaves you with are some meaningful questions. About career, parenting, ambition, and why we judge women more harshly than men when it comes to their outlook on these matters. Shakuntala Devi was an extraordinary woman who insisted on living life on her own terms. She made it to the Guinness Book of Records, wrote a bunch of books herself, including one on homosexuality, and was a successful astrologer. Vidya Balan embodies her tireless spirit in a robust performance that is the best thing in this otherwise inconsistent film.

The conflict between Shakuntala and her daughter is resolved most simplistically…which is not to say it isn’t a real conflict. But a film about a woman who possessed so much flair could’ve done with some flair in its telling.

Rating: 2.5 / 5

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