Shakuntala Devi Review (No Spoilers): A Biopic That Manages To Be Both Inaccurate and Boring

Well, this is a BORING movie! At least ridiculous Mahanati had some nice crazy melodrama in it, and ridiculous Padman had the fun invented Sonam Kapoor character, and ridiculous Rustom had uniforms. This is bad BAD history, bad BAD filmmaking, and also DULL. Blech. I’ll put it this way, only watch it if you enjoy Vidya so much you would be happy seeing her recite the phone book. Because this script is only slightly more exciting than that. Oh wait, I always like to be positive, so I should have something else to add…it’s better than Mission Mangal?

When you are trying to make a movie of someone’s life, you cannot possibly tell the whole truth, or even only the truth, but you can at least avoid telling lies. A person’s life is enormous, no film can contain it. You have to pick what part of their life you want to tell and tell that. At the same time, no matter how much you narrow it down, there will be things you simply do not know about a person and must invent. Sometimes my favorite biopics are the ones that are 90% invented in this way. Like, Jodha-Akbar. There is no record anywhere of their intimate conversations, the ebb and blow of their marriage. Great! The scriptwriter can invent whatever the heck they want, and it isn’t necessarily a lie. What I cannot stand are biopics where they take known facts about a person and change them. Not making stuff up in a vacuum, but ignoring real truth in favor of lies. This film does that, and then does the far greater sin of MAKING UP BORING STUFF!!!!!

Fall in love with Vidya Balan in and as Shakuntala Devi. See new ...

I’ll give one small example. Shakuntala Devi’s father was a circus performer, a lion tamer and a fire eater. This film lies and turns him into a respectable impoverished Brahmin living in a village. WHY WOULD YOU DO THAT???? Why would you have the opportunity to show LION TAMING on screen, and instead turn it into “dusty hungry sad village folk”? It’s a lie, and I hate lies, and it’s a lie with an ugly political purpose, to suggest that talented folk only come from respectable Brahmin households. But beyond that, SUCH A BAD DECISION FOR THE MOVIE! I have to keep pinching myself to stay awake while watching all the “my sick relative is dying and there isn’t enough rice to feed the family and for some reason our whole house is dust colored” section, and I could have been watching a CIRCUS! What fool wrote this script?

Vidya tries mightily to save the movie by giving her usual charming kind of performance. But it IS her “usual performance”. I don’t feel the script or the director trying to give her something unique to play beyond “smiley confident unafraid to be herself short curvey woman”. And opposite her, there is Sanya Malhotra in the most low-energy role I have seen from her. I don’t know what happened with the directing or script, but somehow this actress who I have always found entertaining becomes just a limp rag. Maybe it’s the hair? She has perfect striaght wavey hair in this instead of her usual short curls and, like Samson, with her hair went all her power.

Sanya Malhotra's first look from Shakuntala Devi biopic out ...

The two women are the center of the film, so there’s another small reason to watch it, you get to see two actress opposite each other. And cool changing clothing styles and hair styles and so on as the decades pass, also fun. The two supporting male leads have way less interesting clothing, and less interesting characters, and way more mysterious characters. I was interested while they were on screen because I kept trying to unravel the mystery, and then it turned out to be no mystery, just an odd performance and characterization.

The songs aren’t great, the romance is almost non-existent, the central conflict ends up feeling like we must be missing big pieces of the story because otherwise it makes no real sense, the two women leads are not clearly defined, and the most interesting bits of the real life story are white-washed and removed. It’s just a boring movie.

But, it’s brightly lit. And some of the sets are pretty. And some of the period costumes are fun. And when Vidya smiles onscreen, you can’t help smiling back. So go ahead, have this playing in the background while you clean and sort mail and fold laundry, it won’t hurt you.

8 thoughts on “Shakuntala Devi Review (No Spoilers): A Biopic That Manages To Be Both Inaccurate and Boring

  1. I haven’t seen the film yet (actually, I probably never will) but a friend told me this film feels like a spiritual sequel to the dirty picture, but family friendly. Would you agree with this description?

    Like

    • Yeah, if you translate “family friendly” to “regressive gender roles”. Her main identity is Mother and Wife in this film, her public life and dreams and so on are given far less screentime.

      On Fri, Jul 31, 2020 at 1:58 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ugh!! I was worried about this after reading that there is a disclaimer saying “ based on a true story as seen through the eyes of a daughter, Anupama Banerji” and knowing about her daughter’s lawsuit of her mother’s estate. I almost watched it with my dad last night and at the last minute decided to watch Bobby Jasoos instead and I am so happy I did that. Dad loved Bobby Jasoos btw, and when you get a chance, you really really should watch it.

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    • Do you secretly control Amazon Prime? I had the hardest time finding this movie on Prime because I kept searching “Vidya Balan” and Bobby Jasoos kept popping up and not this movie.

      And yes, UGH. Wanna watch a movie about how a successful woman is inevitably a bad mother? This is the film for you!

      On Fri, Jul 31, 2020 at 2:03 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      Liked by 1 person

      • HA! I wish I would control Amazon Prime. I would start by optimizing the search function, adding way better subtitles, and forbidding them from weirdly editing the movies!

        I hate reading reviews besides yours before figuring out if I want to watch something but I wasn’t sure if you were planning on reviewing it, so I did. And as soon as I read the disclaimer, how it took her book and thoughts on gay rights and turned it into a cringeworthy moment, and focused the second half of the movie on her being a bad mother, I was over it. I will watch it, but probably spare my dad. I have had so much fun watching Hindi movies with him that I don’t want this one to ruin it.

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        • Gonna do a separate specific post just about the weird treatment of homosexuality because it is so worthy of discussion.

          On Fri, Jul 31, 2020 at 2:23 PM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I know very little about the cinema of South India,but I loved Mahanati.The acting, costumes,sets,and soundtrack were quite atmospheric.I didn’t approach it as a biopic but as a story of a woman who saw the crest and trough of her career.Same with Rustom-ridiculously convoluted plot but reasonably period appropriate(and a showstealing performance by Akshay).
    But this,this…Just reading the plot feels terrible.Convoluted plotlines are another thing,but this seems downright problematic.And the homosexuality part is just,ugh.How can they get away with such offensive plotline that doesn’t make sense even in context.And the real Shakuntala Devi was a cheerful,charming person,like a friendly kindergarten Principal not a blabbering mess.
    There have been too many biopics in recent years,and most of them are nothing but a copious display of OTT melodrama that would make 2002 Devdas cringe.After Bhaag Milkha Bhaag,Mahi,Rustom(only for acting) and Mary Kom,I can’t name one good biopic in Bollywood.Ofcourse we cannot expect them to come up with something as good as Dangal,but atleast take the Mahanati approach which felt like a lovely film until I checked the authenticity of facts.Why can’t we have reasonably period appropriate setting,good acting,decent plotline,subtlety in theme AND authenticity of facts in one complete package?Mahanati for me failed in the last checkbox,which is unfortunate because it is supposed to be a biopic.But atleast these films did not exaggerate or misshape our perception of these legends,but Shakuntala just exaggerates her personality to an embarrassing level.
    Today is August 1,and I am done with Bollywood if they dare to make a Meena Kumari biopic.

    Like

    • Yes, Mahanati succeeded as a film even if it failed as a biopic. It messed with basic facts to tell the story it wanted to tell, but at least it had a story in mind to tell. This movie just seemed to go all over the place without a point to it, and it failed as a movie, no consistent characters or plot or even entertainment value.

      On Sat, Aug 1, 2020 at 3:01 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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