Shakuntala Devi Review (SPOILERS): Non-Conventional Woman Made Conventional Film Character

Well, this was a dull movie. And historically inaccurate, mostly in your usual gender normative/casteism/classism way. But also a really WEIRD homophobic thing. Just like, SO ODD. So odd that I am going to give it it’s own post for us to discuss, so look forward to that! (homosexuality post up now, go here to learn more about and discuss that aspect)

Whole plot in two paragraphs:

In 2000, Sanya Malhotra is preparing to meet with lawyers to sue her mother Vidya Balan (Shakuntal Devi). And, flashback! As a little girl, playing in the dust outside her standard issue Starving But Noble Brahmin Village House, she was able to solve impossible math problems very quickly for her schoolboy neighbor/relative. Her father started taking her to schools to perform. Flashforward, she is now a grown woman in Bombay performing before male audiences and sending her father away because she doesn’t need him. She is also having an affair with a rich man, and shoots him when she learns he is engaged to someone else. Following the shooting, she moves to London. In London, she has a hard time getting performing jobs until a Spanish immigrant Luca Calvani (the actual actor is Italian, very odd that he can’t just play Italian) appears to help her. He acts as a Henry Higgins to her, teaching her better English and dressing her and helping her meet the right people, and soon she is a high class act in England and super successful. She leaves behind her dusty miserable family forever, blaming her mother for not standing up to her father and letting her have a normal childhood, and also for allowing her sick sister to die. Luca leaves her eventually, and she starts traveling the world, super rich and successful, and then meets Jisshu Sengupta in India, an IAS agent who lives in and loves Calcutta. She marries him and moves to Calcutta with him for a few years, having a baby with him. After baby, she misses her travel and performing, he offers to take care of their daughter while she travels. But then she misses her daughter, comes back and insists on taking the little girl with her and her husband doesn’t really object?

Present day, we see that Sanya and Vidya are fighting all the time, she resents Vidya for working during her childhood and plans to be different from her. She is married to Amit Sadh, they are living in India and planning to buy houses as investment properties. She plans to never be a mother herself until she surprisingly gets pregnant, and then changes her mind. In the past, Vidya takes little girl Sanya all over the world with her, while Sanya just misses her perfect loving father whose letters Vidya won’t even let her see. Jisshu eventually forces Vidya to put Sanya in boarding school. Vidya takes her out of school at 16 to live with her while she is a full time Mom in London. Vidya buys an investment property at the request of teenage Sanya, they build a happy life together with Sanya building a property empire in London while Vidya keeps traveling and performing to make the money to buy the buildings. And then Sanya meets Amit, they fall in love, Vidya and Jisshu show up to help her with the engagement, Vidya insists that Amit and Sanya stay in London with her and splits with Sanya over it. Years later, Sanya now has her own baby and begins to forgive Vidya, at the same time that Vidya goes back to her totally unchanged depressing dustvill hometown and finds in the locked up family home (also untouched) a trunk with clippings about her that I guess proves her mother did love her? Just as Sanya is about to call Vidya and forgive her, she gets a notice that Vidya has sold the London properties which were in Sanya’s name and now Sanya is on the hook for the tax bill. Sanya and Amit are FORCED to sue Vidya in order to get out of the tax bill, leading to the lawyer meeting at the opening, which ends with Vidya revealing it was all just to get Sanya to talk to her and mother-daughter reconciliation. Happy ending with Vidya getting an award and Sanya applauding her.

Vidya Balan flaunts short hair as Shakuntala Devi | Vidya Balan ...

The opening credits say that this is Shakuntala’s life as told by her daughter. And honestly, the movie watches like the most self-centered whiney ungrateful young woman in the world trying to spin her past to justify everything as about her. Just, UGH!

Starting with the bit that leaped out at me, the film suggests that teenage Sanya really did find and control the property her mother purchased in her name. And therefore when her mother sold that property, she had a right to sue her about it. Let me suggest instead a spoiled wealthy young woman whose parent bought property in her name for tax purposes and as a trust for her future, and when after years of estrangement her wealthy parent sold the properties, she sued because she thought she had earned something she had really just been given. The only way Sanya’s character is justified in control of those properties is if, as a high school student, she researched real estate, found property, planned an investment scheme, supervised the construction work, and continued to maintain contracts, rental disputes, everything. AS A TEENAGER. I mean, REALLY? No! This is a little girl whose mother kindly pretended that she had some kind of input in the properties in her name, but really they were her mother’s. And now she is still so immature, that she had coordinated a whole movie about how she was some kind of teenage property genius and her mother was evil and trying to take it all away from her.

Real story of Shakuntala Devi: Vidya balan plays whom in the movie

Shakuntala did so many impressive things, and the film turns her into a bit of a cartoon. Unbreakable, never shaken, never really struggling. Like, in the movie, she comes to London as a grown woman after a difficult romantic relationship. In real life, she came to London as a teenager still with her father/manager. There was no magical Spanish man who appeared and eased her way, she made it on her own and was probably scared sometimes and tired and weak, but kept going. Her marriage just can’t have been this easy thing where her husband agreed to everything and she had total control of her decisions (she decided to stop working, she decided to start working again, she decided to give up her daughter to her husband, she decided to take her back again). Where is the inner struggle and guilt? Where is the social pressure controlling her? Where are the ugly family fights? This is the vision of a resentful daughter who wants her mother to have made every decision out of selfishness, not out of desperation. And coincidentally, the vision the resentful daughter writes matches with gender norms, a woman will always “choose” to work out of selfishness even though her true duty is to be a mother.

And on the other hand, making Jisshu and the other men into Perfection both plays into an immature young woman’s view of her family and and gender norms. But BOY does it NOT MAKE SENSE!!!! I kept waiting for the conclusion that Jisshu was a terrible father, because, well, he was. The version this movie presents is classic deadbeat-dad-idolized-by-young-child story. He really wanted to raise her but, for some reason, he let her Evil Mother take her away. He wanted to write to her, but her Evil Mother wouldn’t let him write. The only reason she got what she wanted (going to school) was because her Saint Father forced her Evil Mother to do it. Secretly, she didn’t know, but that must be what happened because Evil Mother never did anything right. And then Evil Mother suddenly takes her out of that school and becomes a perfect loving mother for years. For no reason? Because if the film, or her daughter, were to give her a reason that would mean addressing the possibility that she had motivations as a parent beyond just “Good stuff came from Saint Father, bad stuff came from Evil Mother”.

Shakuntala Devi was ahead of her time: Jisshu Sengupta ...

Same way, Amit Sadh as Sanya’s husband really REALLY reads as abusive. Or at least, not a perfect husband. She is living in London with her mother managing multiple properties in her name, this guy shows up from a not very rich Indian family and suggests that she move to India with him and they share all her property. Oh, and her mother’s money funds them starting to buy up their own property jointly in India. When her mother suggests they move to London with her, he abruptly cuts off all contact. She doesn’t want to get pregnant, he does, and he “makes her realize” that she wants to be a mother. And then he suggests the only option is to sue her estranged mother for all her money. The film even includes an angry shouting match in a kitchen where she cringes away from him. What IS this???? Is this the vision of the “normal marriage” unlike Shakuntala’s evil marriage where poor Jisshu was forced to go along with everything?

And then there is the usual changing of the narrative of personal accomplishment to make it a triumph of Indian culture. Shakuntala didn’t reveal her math talent through talking to a nice Brahmin schoolboy in her village, she revealed it by learning card tricks to entertain the audience at her father’s circus. Her father wasn’t an evil man who took her away from her “natural” desire to go to school and be a “normal” girl, he was a promoter who worked with her for years. And her books weren’t “Ayurvedic Math” (Good lord, what kind of weird made up idea is that?), they were called “The Joy of Figuring” and were about just math-math.

Overall, I would say this movie is half totally made up stuff invented by the scriptwriter (her shooting a boyfriend, Ayurvedic Math), and half a skewed view of her presented by her daughter. The real Shakuntala is nowhere.

GitHub - navgurukul/shakuntala-devi: Helping students to ...

(It feels really wrong to attack a living person by contradicting her version of her mother’s life, but I think if she sold her story to the filmmakers, that makes it okay?)

19 thoughts on “Shakuntala Devi Review (SPOILERS): Non-Conventional Woman Made Conventional Film Character

    • Oh, I had a movie I was looking forward to! What was it? Right, there are two movies coming to Netflix that look to do “two female leads have conflict” way better. Dolly Kitty Aur Woh Chamakte Sitare with Konkona and Swara, and Tribhanga with Kajol and Mithila Palkar.

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  1. Thank God for you. Was already put off enough by the trailer, that now from reading your reviews my gut feeling to not waste my time with this movie was correct.

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  2. How was amit sadh ?
    I watched raat akeli hai yesterday a good whodunit with Nawaz, radhika apte on Netflix.
    Definitely worth a watch.

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    • He was odd, because I think they didn’t know what to do with his character. One moment he is young and charming and unsure, the next he is coming across as the knowitall husband.

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  3. Thankfully there are other movies coming up to Netflix because this movie is certainly not one I want to watch after reading all this. Thank you for sparing me from watching basically the ‘Mommy Dearest’ of India.

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  4. Thank you for this review! Relying solely on the daughter’s version of events in this particular case just seems careless.

    Shakuntala Devi put all of her assets besides her properties in a trust, executed a will for her properties, registered the will with the state, and made the secretary of the trust the executor of her trust and will approximately a year before she passed away. She left nothing for her daughter.

    Her daughter filed a law suit arguing that her mother died intestate (without a will) because the will was invalid and she is the rightful heir to her properties. Not sure what the basis of her argument is given that the will was written by someone presumptively of sound mind (nothing in the facts, including from the daughter state otherwise) and was lawfully executed and registered.

    Here is a copy of the legal opinion from the Karnataka High Court re: the will and estate of Shakuntala Devi: https://www.legitquest.com/case/dn-rama-murthy-another-v-anupama-banerjee-others/ddf7f.

    And here is an article summarizing the lawsuit: https://bangaloremirror.indiatimes.com/bangalore/cover-story/shakuntala-devi-properties-worth-bangalore-daughter/articleshow/25333569.cms.

    A daughter who has been cut out of her mother’s will, may have a strong bias. And relying just on her narrative to tell the story of Shakuntala Devi when there are so many other publicly available resources written by the the subject herself, including books she wrote and interviews seems disingenuous and just wrong.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you! I had no idea of any of this, and it completely changes how I look at the film and the filmmakers. And the daughter as well, for one thing it makes me think that she wanted the movie to happen less as a tribute to her mother and more as one last way to squeeze money from her mother by selling her life rights.

      I’m probably the only one confused by this, but just in case to add one thing to your comment, the trust was for the purposes of an education foundation. I know a lot of people who have similar wills, but it’s like an accounting thing, you make your heirs fellow officers of the trust long before you die and then the hand over of assets is far easier. But in this case it is a trust in service of a charitable foundation to be administered by someone charged to use the money for that purpose. Oh, and I guess another sign of sound mind, that Shakuntala did the trust structure thing for the purposes of easy assets transfer and so on shows that she was clear on financial matters straight through to the end.

      Wouldn’t it be a kick of the trust sued the filmmakers for the profits? Or for libel, either way. That would almost make the whole film worth it for me, if Shakuntala from beyond the grave spoke up and stopped it.

      On Sat, Aug 1, 2020 at 7:31 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Oh I would love the trust to sue, but I have a feeling they just don’t want to get into another legal battle and waste money. And unfortunately, I don’t think any journalist is even going to even do the basic research to review the film based on these facts. All this is just upsetting me so I am going to take your suggestion to Courtney and rewatch Baar Baar Dekho.

        Also, knowing these facts, I am afraid this movie is going to be far more upsetting to me than Mission Mangal. Maybe I can watch it to see if I hate it more or less than Sanju.

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    • Yeah, avoid I think. If your only choice is this or Mission Mangal, then you can choose this. But in all other cases, NO!

      On Sat, Aug 1, 2020 at 9:08 AM dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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