Watching Shakuntala Devi and wondering…

Ever since I first saw the teaser, I knew I had to absolutely watch Shakuntala Devi. Not sure if it were the pretty sarees or the persona of Vidya Balan or both together — I mean did you not see Tumhari Sulu? — but I was hooked. The social media creatives where the legend’s original picture morphs into Balan’s character in the movie were particularly interesting. In an indirect way, the movie was claiming (read: screaming) authenticity, reeling people in.

I was among the many the charm worked on.

The movie was a rollecoaster for me. After watching a movie, I often complain about the portrayal of women and how it needs to be better. Shakuntala Devi was like a breath of fresh air for me in this regard. It left me satisfied in a puddle of joyous tears. The way they portray the complex relationship between a mother and a daughter, especially in the era the narrative was set in and the way a mother’s guilt creeps into the narrative and takes control of her life, is perhaps what makes it a surreal experience.

The way they put forth the idea of children looking at their parents as mere parents and not persons or adults is perhaps one of the biggest strengths of this storytelling. While there isn’t enough to unpack for people who have complicated memories of their parents and the baggage of childhood trauma, the narrative makes you think and does a good job at it.

After watching the movie, I decided to surf the internet a bit. It was a short venture for two factors quickly pissed me off pretty bad. For one, her Wikipedia page is too short and to the point. Why are we do bad at documenting the lives of women? Second, I came across a tweet criticising how the movie concentrated too much on her relationship with her daughter and too little on her professional journey. I don’t remember the name, just that it was from a blue tick account.

Why was the second point triggering for me? I firmly believe a person’s personal life plays a major role in deciding the course of their professional paths. Everything is related. In the case of women, the factor seems to be more prominent, especially when it comes to their children. You can’t separate the two spheres. The story shall forever be incomplete without talking about a person’s support system. If they were out there, who was taking care of their children? The fact that we don’t talk about this way in regards to men is a matter worth contemplating.

Devi is a free-spirited girl who isn’t afraid of anyone. In the childhood sequence where we see her interacting with her mother, the latter attempts to dip her into the hues of patriarchy, unsuccessfully. It tells us about the role elder women play in introducing young girls to sexism, passing it on, normalising it in the process.

Two particular scenes from the movie will probably always stay with me. One, where Devi’s elder sister feels at odd with the concept of a ‘badi aurat’ because that isn’t something that exists. The scene screams into the void, driving our attention to the importance of representation. It is important for young girls to see women in all spheres of life to be able to visualise themselves there.

The second scene being the one where a conversation plays out between Shakuntala and her husband, Paritosh. She is feeling the pinch of letting her career take a backseat as she entered the realm of motherhood. When she tells Paritosh about the chaos in her head, he reassures her of the fact that their child has two parents and he would step up on days she has to step out for her professional growth. It was a conversation worth witnessing on screen in 2020, in the middle of the pandemic, when there are simply too many articles about how hard the economic crisis will hit women and their careers. I feel Paritosh is a man worth looking up to.

While I love almost everything about the movie, the one thing I didn’t is that they did not pay enough attention to explain what went wrong between Shakuntala and Paritosh. The fallout of their relationship feels too superficial. In one scene we see a super understanding Paritosh and in the next, an angry wounded man. We see a clash of egos, nothing more. The nuances of their relationship don’t get enough space to unfold.

Overall, the movie’s a must watch. Shakuntala Devi was way ahead of her time but this movie is perfectly timed — we need such portrayals of women in 2020. We need representation of women who are smart and aren’t made to feel bad about it. Unabashed and proud.

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