It is difficult to condense the life of Shakuntala Devi — glorious in its achievements and fraught with its share of troubles — into a two-hour story. But at the onset, director Anu Menon knew that her film would go beyond her muse's magic with math. "I knew I wanted to tell the story through her daughter's perspective," says the director, sitting in her London home, over a Zoom call. Less than a week away from the release of Shakuntala Devi on Amazon Prime Video, she is elated that her efforts of the past three years have come to fruition.
Fascinated with Devi's unique journey that took her from a modest family in Bengaluru to around the world, co-writer Nayanika Mahtani and she were developing a script around the math wiz. However, Menon believes that the story truly came alive when they met her daughter, Anupama Banerjee, in 2016. "My agent found Anupama. Despite being far removed from Bollywood, I think she was receptive to me because we lived in the same city. Nayanika and I met her at a café where she came with her husband and two daughters," she recounts.
Vidya Balan and Anupama Banerjee
Though it had been three years since Devi had passed away, Menon remembers that the loss was "still fresh for Anupama" then. "Her daughter was grappling with this void in her life. I realised that she wanted to find a way to celebrate her mother, her amazing life, and their relationship. [Making a movie] seemed like a cathartic way of dealing with it. [The meeting convinced me to] tell the story from the prism of her daughter rather than that of an outsider."
Even as her achievements remain unparalleled, Menon says the Vidya Balan starrer aims to humanise the much-celebrated genius. "I wanted to focus on the fact that you could be a genius yet fail at other things and be okay with it. It seemed like a far more powerful message than just documenting all her achievements. [After watching the film,] Anupama and her family said, 'You captured the woman we knew, what she stood for and what really made her, her.'"
The beauty of women telling women's stories lies in the sensitivity and empathy that the director brings through her gaze. Menon — who previously directed the sophomore season of Four More Shots Please — says that the biopic aims to shatter the belief that motherhood is the be-all and end-all of a woman's existence, in a much-needed departure from commercial Hindi films that treats on-screen mothers as "devtas". "We have highlighted what is expected of women as mothers and how Shakuntala figured her way around it. Sometimes, she did it successfully, and at other times, not so much. So, if people call their mothers [after the movie], I think my job is done."
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