A film about Shakuntala Devi is definitely an exciting prospect. It is more interesting when Anu Menon (of London, Paris, New York fame) relatively a newcomer, helms the project. The trailer definitely showed that the film had a lot to look out for. The charismatic Vidya Balan in her second biopic was absolutely promising in the trailer.
However, when it came to watching the film, it only seemed to be about Shakuntala Devi's portrait of a woman who dissents patriarchy and breaks stereotypes. Of course, her mathematical wizardry is shown right from early on but never without "telling" the audience that she is breaking all the things said before. Especially the scene where young Shakuntala lectures her elder sister, "Bada aadmi nahi badi aurat banoongi" (I will become a great woman and not a man) when she is told that only being a great man would be fruitful. The film never leaves an opportunity to preach the audience about the difficulties a woman faces in a patriarchic society. At some point you feel, "We know how unfair the world is to women! Just cut down on the preaching already."
Making a biopic is never easy. It is all the more difficult when you have to cover the life of a personality as coloured as Shakuntala Devi's. She was a Guinness Book of World Records holder, an astrologer and an author of a very controversial book, "The World of Homosexuals". All of these are just mentioned in passing in the film. That brings me to the question, "Is it because the story is being told from the eyes of her daughter that these important milestones in her life are left out?" When Devi achieved some of these feats, she wasn't even born. If that's the case, why is the relationship between Anupama (played by the prolific Sanya Malhotra) not explored in detail?
Talking about Sanya Malhotra, she aces her role as Anupama Banerjee. Vidya Balan shows her confidence, arrogance and even her vulnerabilities (of which we are left wanting more) with incredible finesse and panache. The moments between the mother and daughter had a lot of potential but like the rest of the film, were hurriedly explored. The scene where Shakuntala says, "Why should I be normal when I am great", I saw a little bit of Silk from The Dirty Picture. Only that Silk has a daughter here.
Jisshu Sengupta as Paritosh Banerji acts well but his character has very less screen presence. Even the instance where he is alleged to be homosexual, he is nowhere to be seen. The chemistry of Sengupta and Balan is great and doesn't feel staged. There is this one scene, where after Anupama is born Shakuntala wants to get back to the stage. She expresses this desire to her husband and he... simply agrees. She says, "Maine toh socha tha, bade patake chalenge" (I thought there will be fireworks) and that's what those fireworks remain... Just mere thoughts that never get onto the big screen.
Amit Sadh as Ajay Abhay Kumar charms us along with being a charming and a doting husband to Sanya Malhotra. My favourite scene is where Anu starts to pick up a fight with Ajay because his mother brought up the topic of having a child. Ajay retorts, "Ask her why she said that, why pick on me?" After sometime he follows it up with "Lasagna serve karogi ki divorce paper?" (What will you serve, lasagna or divorce paper).
In an attempt to be engaging and pacy, the screenplay is stuffed with way too much information and very less emotion. Scenes like the one where the young Dev's elder sister dies are only shown as a "lesson" of how the women of the yore kept silent because speaking up would mean dissent which is nothing short of blasphemy. The attempt to show the Math wizard's messed up life succeeds only in parts, like the one scene where Devi writes a response to her mother's demand for money much to her chagrin. There is also this other scene where Shakuntala tells Anu, "When you left, even my Math left me Anu!" This scene is supposed to make us reach for the tissue and it does... if you want to wipe your fingers off the popcorn butter. The area where her ex-husband is a homosexual is carefully tip-toed around so as to make this film viewable for the "family audience".
The editing and the lighting of the scenes are too glossy and make the film look like a superhero movie or worse... a fairy-tale! The non-linear narration lacks in substance. All the preaching done in dialogues could have been done in some writing like the scenes where Devi reaches London. She seems to do so without any struggles! Her struggles (or not) when she finds out that her ex-husband is a homosexual is not touched upon. This portion alone has the potential of a film being made in its own respect!
The songs are catchy but are so much like the ones which you forget once you are done watching the film. The background score is largely an Indian version of Harry Potter with a lot of strings. This actually makes a strong case for the fairy-tale-like feel of the film.
In a nutshell, the film covers up in acting by Vidya Balan and Sanya Malhotra what it lacks in writing.