Written by 12:20 PM Entertainment, Staff's Picks

A biopic on ‘human computer is Bollywood’s ‘warts and all’

Shankuntala Devi known as the human computer and an Indian wizard of math is all set to stream on Amazon Prime Video from this Friday.

The character of the math genius is played by Vidya Balan, who portrayed herself as a small-town Indian girl that took the world by storm.

The dazzling skills of Shankuntala Devi even earned her a spot in Guinness Book of World Record and well made her a minor globe-trotting celeb.

Actress Balan has been seen in the trailer asking people whether she should answer from ‘left to right or right to left’ when she was asked to multiply two multiple-digit numbers.

Influenced by the same scene the real life event of Shankuntala Devi doing the exact thing in an interview with Asian Television Network (ATN) of Canada has watched for nearly half a million times since 2013. The video was uploaded at the time of death when she was 83 years.

The actress reported that she herself watched the video in order to prepare for her role.

The video had a questionnaire, where a math student of Canadian University said ‘the calculator will take three minutes to answer to this question’- and Shakuntala Devi answered for the same question within some seconds.

Shakuntala Devi said she was doing mathematical calculations from the age of three in her head

Shakuntala did not have any formal education but she had some extraordinary skills to make complicated calculations in her head. Her speed of calculation was astonishing as she was faster than the computer- told by Balan over the phone.

In an interview Shankuntala told that she was calculating numbers in her mind from the age of three which was discovered by her father, who was a circus artist. Her father noticed while playing cards with her that she was beating him by memorizing the cards.

Whenever Shakuntala was asked about her incredible mathematical skills she always said ‘It is a gift from god a divine gift.’

When she was just six years old, she showcased her skills in a public performance in Mysore city (Karnataka). It was the place of her birth.

She even acquired the reading and writing skills and for a long time she travelled around the world by exhibiting her skills to do impossible and complex mental calculations in front of public at theatres, universities and radio or television studios.

Shakuntala participated in a show of BBC television in 1950 where her answer was different from the host. The reason of this difference was the flaw in the question that she pointed out. By the time the experts re-examined the number she was proven to be right.

She even beat Univac in 1997 at American city of Dallas, which is known for making fast supercomputers.

Her name was registered in the Guinness Book of Work Record in 1982, when she multiplied two numbers containing 13 digits and was picked by the computer randomly in front of the 1,000 people at Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. Within 28 seconds she calculated and recited the 28-digit answer.

Shakuntala even had other alternative career such as astrologer, told by Balan. Shakuntala Devi wrote books on crime, astrology, math and cookery. She even wrote a book on decriminalizing homosexuality in 1970, which was back then a very big deal not in just India but all around the world.

‘Shakuntala Devi lived her life on her conditions and had done so many things as she was so fierce and totally unapologetic about what people think of her work back then.’

The director of the film Anu Menon met Vidya Balan two years back. Balan added that she heard all ups and down of Shakuntala’s life and her reaction was ‘Oh my god!’ this is a movie whating to be made.

The actress had to watch lots video along with reading all the articles published about Shakuntala Devi to prepare her role. She even met to the daughter of Shankuntala Devi named Anupama Banerji, who now lives in London with her family.

It helped the actress to get some glimpse into Shakuntala’s life by fascinating her that nobody usually associate to a fun person with math but she turned that perception on its head utterly. She used to play with numbers and she used to feel joy while doing math and enjoyed performing. For a mathematician it is so unusual because math is considered to be a very boring and dry discipline.

The words like boring and dry are not associated with Shakuntala Devi. She was described to be an ‘alert, extrovert, affable and articulate’ in a 1990 study conducted by Arthur R Jensen, a researcher on human intelligence at California University, Berkeley.

As per the journalist filmmaker and former MP Pritish Nandy that apart from her gregariousness, Shakuntala had a deep-rooted unhappiness.

He told to BBC that ‘some of it was personal’, but the most crucial of it was that she was unable to monetize her skill.

In interviews, she often mentioned that as child prodigy she was pressurized to make money as the only breadwinner for the family and later was married to a closeted gay man in life.

Mr. Nandy one of India’s prominent editors in 1980s stated that he was often visited by Shakuntala Devi whenever she was in Mumbai, which helped him to understand her better.

He also added that she could not find the source of her talent as he used to ask her ‘Can you delve in your head deep to find that how do you do it?’ And Shakuntala would simply reply ‘It just comes naturally to me.’

She did not know the source of her brilliance and the most tragic thing was that anyone else was also not interested in finding it out either.

Mr Nandy said that Shakuntala was often worried about not being able to monetize her skills. He also added that she always complained as her genius mind does not necessarily help because she was not getting much shows. Later her talent was seen as a freak show than a skill show.

The number’s wiz was forgotten and was at a loose end. She also lost bit of her confidence while moving towards astrology to scramble to make living. She tried to do various things including contesting parliamentary elections but all these did not came to much output.

Balan promises that this biopic is different rather than just ending up being a hagiography. The actress did not want to give away much of the plot but states that it is a ‘warts-and-all biopic’.

Geniuses do not mean flawless human beings, which is the beauty of life as well as the beauty of the film. Every life is full of ups and downs, as it is not the preserve of the less fortunate, which makes some wholesome biopic.

The actress hopes that the film will be successful in entertaining the audience especially in a time when people are stuck at home due to pandemic.

‘I hope it will bring change in the way people teach math and try to make this subject interesting. Take the fear of the subject away and inspire more and more people to take it up.’

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A biopic on ‘human computer is Bollywood’s ‘warts and all’
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