Vidya Balan plays the numbers game with Shakuntala Devi
The movie is out this Friday on Amazon Prime
She made a satellite launch seem as uncomplicated as frying puris in last year's sci-fi drama Mission Mangal. So it is only natural that ahead of the release of the eponymous biopic on mathematical genius Shakuntala Devi, we quiz Vidya Balan on whether we can expect something similar on Maths this time around.
She responds with her signature laugh. "I hope it changes people's relation with maths for sure," she shares. "Or the way they teach maths," she corrects herself.
The actress, who admits to having a liking for numbers, unlike certain people's aversion to the subject, says Shakuntala Devi opened her eyes to the fact that there is maths everywhere. Balan was speaking to us over the phone from Mumbai, India. "From cooking to nature, to patterns and even music, numbers are all around us," says the actress who hopes Shakuntala Devi, directed by Anu Menon (London, Paris, New York), changes the way people approach the subject of Maths.
Known as the 'human computer' (a moniker born of the fact she could reel off complicated numbers faster than a computer could calculate the same), Indian writer and numbers whiz Shakuntala Devi counted her way into The Guinness Book of World Records way back in 1982. Her biopic Shakuntala Devi is set to premiere on July 31, on Amazon Prime Video, as opposed to the big theatre release the makers had been planning in the pre Covid-19 days.
Vidya, of course, is pragmatic about the platform. She is confident that the 'family' movie will find ready acceptance among a homebound audience during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. After all "adapting" to new circumstances is not new to the actress who made her way into the big screen after a stint on television.
From the spirited Parineeta of 2005 to the luscious Silk Smitha in The Dirty Picture, to the exuberant scientist Tara Shinde from Mission Mangal, the actress seems to gravitate towards roles that are an extension of her personality.
All these movies have another common point - the representation of a woman in conflict with the world around her. Though to be fair, the conflict is never within the characters Balan inhabits so thoroughly.
In Shakuntala Devi we get to see it in the form of the mathematical genius who chaffs against the 'perfect wife' or the 'perfect mother' tag.
"The struggle to be that perfect woman, also needs to be acknowledged," Vidya elaborates. And for that "men need to step up and not judge us," she avers. But most importantly, the actress says women should stop judging themselves. Because that way they will only end up feeling guilty, she stresses.
"When we put ourselves above others, when we pursue our dream, why should we be apologetic about it," she spiritedly questions. And it is a side of Vidya that has endeared her to fans over the years - in nearly all the movies she has done so far, she embraces her characters with absolute gusto, making us fall in love and look on with pure awe and admiration as they take on the world be it in Paa, Kahaani or Ishqiya, just to name a few.
"Shakuntala Devi was way ahead of her times," the actress says. "Tara (from Mission Mangal) didn't feel apologetic about her career, but Shakuntala Devi is more 'in your face'. She is brazen. She was someone who 'wanted to have it all.'
"She believed; 'Why should there be different rules for men and women?' and also asserted, 'Don't always expect me to compromise.'"
There comes a point in the conversation when one isn't sure if it is Vidya Balan the actress, or Shakuntala Devi, the mathematician-feminist we are listening to.
"Shakuntala Devi loved to travel, she loved to perform, to be up on the stage. and she was someone who 'wanted to celebrate this gift' that she had." Not many are aware that she even authored books including one on cooking and another on homosexuality.
"She was not perfect, of course. And she never felt guilty about it either."
For Vidya part of the appeal to play this real-life figure also lay in the fact that the movie showcases the "person beneath the genius."
And who better than the inimitable Vidya Balan to portray a strong, unapologetically gifted woman with a gung-ho attitude towards life.