The Human Computer: Shakuntala Devi

I went to school in Calcutta and I distinctly remember Shakuntala Devi’s visit to the school. She bowled us over with her Mathematical genius. She was able to calculate the root or squares, cubes, to infinity of unbelievably long numbers! We were absolutely awestruck. She was known as the Human Computer. She must have been in her forties when she visited our school. She asked the student audience to chose numbers and literally played with them. Her capacity to tell the day of your birthday no matter which year you were born impressed us as kids.

Shakuntala Devi as I remember her when she visited our school. Credits: The logical Indian.com https://thelogicalindian.com/story-feed/get-inspired/shakuntala-devi-the-human-computer/

We watched the biopic of Shakuntala Devi which was released recently on Amazon Prime. Vidya Balan plays the character of the mathematical genius. Vidya Balan played the role with her usual oomph! While we enjoyed the film we thought that Vidya Balan was overacting in parts of the film. I do not remember Shakuntala Devi with so much of oomph, so cheerful and cracking so many jokes. But then of course I was very young, it was a long time ago and the memory of her visit to our school is faint. I do distinctly remember her on stage in the assembly hall, the only large room we had in the school.

Update: A friend corrected me on twitter on my observation of Shakuntala Devi not being particularly cheerful or cracking jokes during shows. Here is a link he kindly provided of one of her shows in 1977 where she does show some ‘oomph’!! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MGBTHb0FigI

Vidya Balan in the biopic Shakuntala Devi. Credit: Deccan Herald as in link below https://www.deccanchronicle.com/entertainment/movie-reviews/020820/shakuntala-devi-review-a-feminist-in-a-sexist-setting.html

I studied at St. Teresa’s School, Kidderpore in Calcutta. I thought she was on whirlwind tours around the country in those days and all the children of that era may have seen her perform. However, she did not seem to have visited my husband’s school in Jaipur during those times. Her visit to our school in Calcutta made sense after watching the biopic. She was resident in Calcutta for sometime during that period, when married to her IAS husband, Paritosh Banerjee stationed in the city.

Spoiler Alert: For those who plan to watch the film: The mother daughter relationships in the movie gives the human element to the story. The story revolves around Shakuntala Devi’s relationship with her daughter, which is depicted as tumultuous. The daughter does not enjoy moving from city to city while her mother performed her Maths shows. She was unhappy with her mother for keeping her away from her father. Shakuntala Devi was also shown in the film as being unhappy with her mother for not being able to speak or stand up in front of her father who dragged her from one Maths performance to another to earn a living.

The interesting element of the depiction of the mother daughter relationship was that it showed that she was fallible. She may have been a Super Human Computer, but she was not a Super Human Being nor a Supermom. In today’s era of social media we see a number of young women depicting themselves as supermoms with a perfect work-life balance. It’s OK to be fallible and a genius can also have her dark side.

I found the character of Shakuntala Devi admirable. A woman with a purpose in life and with the guts to go for it no matter what it cost her. As shown in the movie Shakuntala Devi and her daughter were exceptionally lucky in the choice of their husbands. Such supportive and understanding personalities, even though Shakuntala Devi did divorce her husband.

I was surprised by her writing a book on homosexuality, The World of Homosexual, published in 1977. In an era when homosexuality was well hidden and never spoken about, I wonder why and how she wrote the book. In the film she indicates that her husband was homosexual, but beyond this comment, nothing in his characterization indicates any such trait. This fact adds to the mystery of the genius.

The finale of the film is extremely filmy. Bollywood films suggest that no life is complete unless it is acknowledged on stage in front of a doting audience and the hero/heroine is hugely appreciated. The whole incident looked highly contrived, especially her daughter whistling and acknowledge her mother, and Shakuntala Devi acknowledging the contribution of her mother. An unnatural resolution of all the mother daughter issues which formed the crux of the film!

All said and done, it is an entertaining film. For fans of Vidya Balan it is definitely a treat. I enjoyed the character of Shakuntala Devi’s son-in-law played by Amit Sadh. We have been watching him in the Amazon Prime Original Series Breathe into the Shadows! Jisshu Sengupta playing her husband, Paritosh Banerjee, also does a good job as an understanding husband. Overall, the film is definitely worth watching.

4 thoughts on “The Human Computer: Shakuntala Devi

  1. Good review. I expected it to be a bit filmy as you said, but overall an excellent film. I did not know anything about her life until I watched the movie yesterday. I don’t have much idea about recent movies, suggest some good noes. Although I have Amazon prime subscription since 2017 to get free home delivery, this is the first movie I watched after buying the Amazon TV stick which came with Alexa-“chu manter” stuff.

    Have a good day.

    Like

  2. Thanks Tulsi. Alexa is sometimes useful and sometimes takes you by surprise. Once when I got irritated and said ‘you are a dumbo!’ Alexa retorted ‘please make your compliant to alexa.com’ or something to that effect!!

    Like

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