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Vidya Balan: ‘You don't judge the male genius for anything except his genius’

The 'Shakuntala Devi' star talks about playing the celebrated maths wizard in Anu Menon’s upcoming biopic

Vidya Balan in 'Shakuntala Devi'
Vidya Balan in 'Shakuntala Devi'

In two films in 2011, Vidya Balan played very different real-life figures: the softcore star Silk Smitha in The Dirty Picture and Sabrina Lal, Jessica Lal’s determined sister, in No One Killed Jessica. Now, almost a decade later, she’s playing a household name, the maths wizard Shakuntala Devi. The biopic, which releases on Amazon Prime Video on 31 July, is directed by Anu Menon (Waiting), with a screenplay by Menon and Nayanika Mahtani and dialogue by Ishita Moitra.

The trailer highlights Devi’s uncanny ability to solve complex mathematical problems in seconds—a skill that brought her fame on TV and college campuses—while suggesting that the emotional centre of the film will be her complicated relationship with her daughter (played by Sanya Malhotra). Over Zoom, Balan told Lounge about her own fondness for numbers and why she’s missing traditional film promotions just a little.

At the time you were approached for the film, did you know much about Shakuntala Devi?

All I really knew was she was a mathematical genius, was known as a “human computer", and was in the Guinness Book of World Records. When Anu Menon started narrating incidents from her life, it gave me a sense of who she was and what sort of life she had led. One of the first things that struck me was her sense of humour and her zest for life. She didn’t let the fact that she was a woman or a mother limit her in any way, which is what probably caused a lot of conflict in her life.

We had access to a lot of information from her daughter, Anupama Banerji, and son-in-law, Ajay. They were very honest and transparent and forthcoming with us. I spoke to Anupama at length, and Anu Menon interviewed them over a period of many, many months. We then pored over all that information and culled out what's there in the film.

Is there anything particular you try to do when portraying a real-life person?

It will always be an interpretation. For me what’s important—what I tried to do with this film, and also with The Dirty Picture—is to capture the essence of the person.

Was there a point when you felt you’d grasped the essence of Devi?

There were many. There were moments when I felt, this is what I share with her, this is my point of identification. It was like peeling an onion—you think you know her and then something else is revealing itself to you. You can't describe her in a unidimensional way.

She had these seemingly contradictory facets to hershe was a maths genius who was also an astrologer, a religious person who was a pioneering supporter of gay rights.

That’s what makes someone interesting to me. You think, oh, they're this person, and suddenly you find out something else about them. If she's so much into science, how come she believes in god? We have preconceived notions, we want to box everyone, especially women. Historically it's been so easy to judge women, to label them. If she was someone who wanted so much from life, if she was ambitious, then you'd think that she was not as committed to her family. That’s not necessarily true.

Especially for a woman in the 1950s and '60s, career was not really an option. And on top of that you’re perceived as a genius. You don't judge the male genius for anything else except his genius. But a woman gets judged as a daughter, a wife, a mother.

Do you have an affinity for maths?

I enjoyed numbers, actually. I have a special relationship with numbers, which I'd forgotten about honestly until Shakuntala Devi rekindled my love for them. I used to be great at remembering all kinds of dates, birthdays, phone numbers. Numbers for me were like... (snaps her fingers).

Devi had this reputation as an instinctive genius. Did you get a sense where it came from or whether there was a lot of work that went into it?

I think in the initial years her father did spend a lot of time grooming this gift, making her practice. Beyond that there's nothing that gives you a clue to how she did what she did. It's unfathomable that she can give an answer in 28 seconds that the computer took much longer to arrive at. She says that she goes through steps, it's not that the answer appears to her. I don't know what sort of mind that is—a once-in-a-century brain.

This is a rare film where the director, writers, lead actors, cinematographer and editor are all women.

Also, the production designer, costume designer, one of our producers—all women. It was great. But I will say this—on set, there was no sense that I'm working with so many women; they were just professionals who are damn good at what they do. Anu wanted the best team possible for this film and that's what she ended up getting.

How do you feel about the film releasing directly on OTT?

You know, I think it's great, because under the circumstances people can't go to theatres, and Amazon has a huge reach, which can be leveraged for the film. That for me is a huge boost, knowing that we'll reach 200 countries at the same time. People who don't even know Hindi cinema, they’re now watching your film.

Is it a relief to not have to run around for promotions?

I'm missing that a bit actually. I love the promotions. I'm still doing a lot of interviews, just not running all over the city.

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