Shakuntala Devi the film premiered on streaming platform Amazon Prime Video during the lockdown. Vidya Balan plays the genius mathematician, and Sanya Malhotra plays her daughter Anupama Banerji.
The film is helmed by a women led crew (director Anu Menon and co-writers Menon and Nayanika Mahtani; dialogues by Ishika Moitra). It is amongst the top movies on this global OTT platform.
There has been post-release speculation around the real life of India's 'human computer. Did she really take her daughter to court ? Was she married to a homosexual? Did she not send her daughter to school ? Who really was Shakuntala Devi ?
Some questions will perhaps remain unanswered at this point - till fresh documentation emerges - since Devi herself died in 2013.
BOOM connected with her daughter, Anupama Banerji and the filmmaker, Anu Menon to get a sense on the authenticity of the material used in the film, at least from one key protagonist.
Was Husband Paritosh Banerji really gay?
This question stems from a moment in the film. While promoting her book, 'The World of Homosexuals' (1977) in America, Shakuntala says that her husband is homosexual. In the film, her daughter throws a fit and gets into an argument with Devi who in turn says this was a harmless lie to bring positive attention to her book.
Anupama Banerji clarified to BOOM her father Paritosh Banerji, an Indian Administrative Service (IAS) officer passed away in April 2012 in Kolkata. And that he wasn't gay. She says they did not divorce over his sexual preference.
She says, "If daddy were gay I would be the first to say that because it's fine to be gay. I have really close friends that are gay and it's no big deal. He wasn't gay. He was very popular and he had a partner after mummy (Shakuntala Devi) who was with him for a long time…. It didn't matter to daddy because he is so easy going."
"She just said my husband is gay. It really sounded interesting to people. I think it was just a marketing technique." Filmmaker Anu Menon adds, "Shakuntala just said this gay bit or that her father was being a circus trainer, because people would keep asking her, why or how? She found these answers useful because that shut people up."
Why did Shakuntala and Paritosh get divorced?
As shown in the film, the primary reason for their divorce was that they wanted different things from life. Shakuntala wanted to keep travelling and performing 'maths' across the world. Paritosh preferred to stay in Kolkata (or Bangalore, later) because he wanted a home.
Banerji explains, "Daddy didn't like to travel so much. His life was in Kolkata and mummy never wanted to stay at one place. It was like we show in the film."
Filmmaker Anu Menon has adapted Shakuntala's experiences of being a wife and homemaker as Anupama recalls them. "She tried her best to be this domestic goddess by doing cleaning, cooking etc. and used to take the baby everywhere in a pram. But she became unhappy because that's not her calling. The conflict in their relationship was about Shakuntala travelling and Paritosh wanting to stay put in one place. Later on, they became friends. But she never forgave him when Anupama got married," says Menon.
Did Shakuntala Devi prevent her daughter from going to school?
A rather unusual aspect of Shakuntala Devi in the film is her decision not to send her daughter to a school. As she would tour different countries, putting her child in a school was not easy. Onscreen, her ex-husband forces her to enroll Anupama in a school with subtle threat of legal action.
Banerji explains, "I started school (at Welhams) when I was about 9. I was too young to go to boarding school. Daddy wanted me to go to a school. During holidays, I always felt homeless because each time, I would come to a new hotel in a new place. I would meet new people. Later on though, I would find coming back to boarding school reassuring. And when we set up home in my twenties, that was beautiful."
Menon connects this aspect of Shakuntala with her own lack of a formal education. "In the film, that scene (where Paritosh compels Shakuntala to send Anupama to a school) actually happened with the lawyers. For creative reasons, we kept it between Shakuntala and Paritosh. She thought differently and that's why she didn't choose to send her to school. Her daughter was visiting the world and was getting the worldview that no other child could get. But what she didn't perhaps realise is that, by withholding her going to school, she was doing exactly the same thing that her father had done to her. "
Did Shakuntala Devi shoot someone in real life?
In the film, before she moves to London at short notice, Shakuntala Devi shoots a boyfriend, a wealthy man who decides to get married and maintain their relationship on the side. Menon says, "That did happen! We had to be careful because we didn't name the person. The point is she was tempestuous. Like she will break plates during a fight or throw things; this was a flaw, she had childish anger. She didn't have a childhood."
Was her father a circus trainer?
A sad part of Shakuntala Devi's life emerges to be her growing up years. Her father began to make her perform math tricks at an early age to earn a living. Devi has stated in various interviews that she was the sole breadwinner of her family, and she didn't have much of a relationship with her parents later on in life. Her father is also reported to have been a circus trainer or lion tamer, according to The New York Times in 2013.
The film shows that she had a strained relationship with her parents. When her elder sister dies of an illness, Shakuntala blames her mother. Later on, she is shown making regular money transfers to her parents. She never meets them, even when Paritosh takes her to visit them before getting married. Towards the end, she visits their deserted family home and mourns her dead mother.
Banerji clarifies that she hardly knew her maternal grandparents and that they didn't offer much emotional support to her mother. "I remember meeting my grandmother very briefly. I have never met my grandfather because he had passed away before I was born. He was an upper caste Brahmin who used to do some astrology and match making... Mummy would say these things to make them sound interesting, and then they would stick. He had nothing to do with circus." Menon adds, "He knew math. So when she realised her potential, he trained her. WhatsApp forwards going around showing him as a circus trainer had nothing to do with us and our film."
Did Shakuntala Devi prevent her daughter from marrying the man of her choice?
A possessive mother, Shakuntala Devi was not happy that Anupama would move away after marriage. So she didn't attend her wedding and also didn't' forgive her ex husband Paritosh for supporting Anupama's choice to marry Ajay Abhaya Kumar.
Menon validates this, and says, "She didn't bless the wedding. Imagine, she was not there at the wedding. A mother and daughter that were inseparable! Anupama finally took that call because she decided to become a separate person. Theirs was a complicated relationship."
Did Shakuntala Devi Sue Her Daughter ?
The film's climax features Shakuntala Devi suing her own daughter Anupama, now married and mother to a child, and her husband. While the movie has dramatised the brief dispute between mother and daughter, Anupama Banerji remembers her mother as a close friend. "A lot of our confrontations were because we talked about everything. My mother was ahead of her time. "Anu Menon signs off with this astute observation. "Anupama wouldn't be who she is if it were not for the worldview that her mother brought her."
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