Shakuntala Devi

‘Shakuntala Devi’ Takes on Feminism and Contemporary Motherhood

2020 biopic ‘Shakuntala Devi’ unfolds the prodigy’s life as seen through her daughter’s eyes, bringing the focus to Devi’s motherhood.

Shakuntala Devi was a math genius in pre-independent India, and was called the “human computer”. She wrote books about mathematics, puzzles, and astrology; and even conducted the first study on homosexuality in India in her book The World of Homosexuals

The 2020 film Shakuntala Devi unfolds this prodigy’s life as seen through her daughter’s lens. The story of Shakuntala Devi (played by Vidya Balan) pans over three generations as it unravels her early childhood, her relationship with her parents — especially her mother — and her life after moving out of India. The focus of the movie is Shakuntala’s fervid relationship with her daughter Anupama (Sanya Malhotra). Anu Menon, the director of the film, has based the movie on Anupama’s retelling of her mother’s life. We see the film almost wholly through Anupama’s eyes. This angle brings the focus on Shakuntala Devi’s motherhood. 

Shakuntala separates Anupama from her father for many of her formative years; and makes her travel around the world with her for her work. Anupama resented her ambitious and overachieving mother for it; and sought out a ‘normal’ childhood, constantly grumbling about how she “never wants to be like her mother”. Anupama even says she would like to avoid being a mother herself because she’s traumatized; and fears she will mess her child’s life up like her mother did hers.

Shakuntala Devi (Sony Pictures Networks India)

Yet, when she becomes a mother herself, Anupama finds herself in the quintessential tussle between nurturance and autonomy. 

In her article for The Guardian, Amy Westervelt refers to motherhood as “feminism’s unfinished work”, owing to how little it is spoken of in feminist literature. Many traditional feminists viewed motherhood as something that encaged women physically and reinforced the patriarchal notion of women’s bodies being vessels for reproduction; while feminists of colour believed that when women in developing countries do not even have agency over their wombs then motherhood becomes an empowering choice. 

Last year, the number of couples being married and the number of children being born in the country hit a record low. Women said that finding men who are willing to share the housework is arduous and their financial independence has allowed them to avoid motherhood and child care; unlike their mothers. 

Shakuntala Devi (Sony Pictures Networks India)

Not all of these women have chosen a life of singlehood, but have not found circumstances that align with their ideal set up for family life. 

Shakuntala’s life choices, while being bold in the ‘50s and ‘60s, come to many millennial and Gen-Z women as problems that have the capacity to be very real possibilities in their own future. A lot more women today find themselves in a situation where they feel that they would never be able to keep a job they are passionate about or hone a craft with the same level of intensity after being mothers; and will eventually have to choose one. What’s more, career-oriented women who are already mothers still face questions and statements about time management, household work distribution, and about how present they are in their kids’ lives.

In Shakuntala Devi, Anupama complains about not going to a normal school and being away from her father. It is true that those are not teenage temper tantrums but very legitimate complaints. It is also true that Shakuntala had no other option.

Shakuntala Devi
Shakuntala Devi (Sony Pictures Networks India)

If she wanted to love and nurture her daughter and still continue being a world-renowned mathematician, she had to make some tough choices.

Maybe the extent and intensity of her actions could be questioned; but who was there to guide her or show her the way? It was her first time being a mother and she wanted to be the best at it; and being the best to her meant being free, independent, liberated, financially secure and unconventional — all the things her own mother never was. 

Shakuntala constantly despised her own mother for being submissive and docile; and swore to never lose her own voice just because she was someone’s wife or mother.  Both Anupama in her hot-headed teenage angst and Shakuntala in her flailing and unique motherhood still only knew of binary and conventional ways to being a mother: pre-imposed, socially-constructed mental checklists about “good mothers” and “bad mothers”.

Shakuntala Devi Film
Shakuntala Devi (Sony Pictures Networks India)

As Shakuntala’s daughter rages about her despondent childhood, you can’t help but think “should a mother do this?”

You are faced with your inner prejudices and notions about motherhood — viewing it as less of a bonding experience and more as a responsibility; a responsibility that has for years on end been dictated and taken shape through patriarchal constructs. These constructs are manifested through not just circumstantial pressures, but also internalized submissions, making women feel guilty, selfish, imperfect; and eventually making them question the choices they had once felt empowered in making. 

When Shakuntala says, “I want the baby of a handsome and intelligent man like you” and her lover proposes marriage; she is quick to answer “I want a baby not a husband”. This confidence of hers is dulled with age as she feels that she failed her daughter. Her daughter, by the end of the movie, reconciles with her mother; and confesses to understanding her mother’s situation better after becoming a mother herself. 

For a lot of urban women in developing countries, ending up like our mothers may at best be not ideal; and at worst, our biggest fear. We are constantly seeing them through the lens of their dynamic in a family set-up that is still largely patriarchal. What if we stop to ask who our mothers are and what personal experiences led to them raising us the way they did? We might find more confidence in believing that decisions around motherhood could be a lot more personal. They could involve a lot less the pre-conceived options that we feel so compelled to follow; owing more to the novelty of the process than our own intentions.  If we stop to ask, we might find answers to decisions we have never been taught to question.

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Header: Shakuntala Devi (Sony Pictures Networks India)

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