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'Vidya Balan is astounding as my mummy!'

July 29, 2020 17:25 IST

'My mother had a vivacious personality and it had to come out, and Vidya was our only choice.'
'She is mummy on screen!'

IMAGE: Vidya Balan, who plays Shakuntala Devi, and Sanya Malhotra, who plays her daughter Anupama Banerji, in Anu Menon's Shakuntala Devi.

Shakuntala Devi Director Anu Menon shares a beautiful bond with the Maths genius's daughter Anupama Banerji, and it shows.

They call each other "Anu", both live in London, and share wonderful anecdotes about the iconic figure in their lives, who has now acquired a space in cinema.

Vidya Balan plays the titular character in the film while Sanya Malhotra plays Anupama. The men in their lives are played by Jissu Sengupta (Shakuntala's husband Paritosh Banerji) and Amit Sadh (Anupama's husband Ajay Abhaya Kumar).

Anu helps Anupama through the interview, warning her not to reveal the film while answering a question. She has researched her subject so much that Anupama can't help but tell Ronjita Kulkarni/Rediff.com, "She knows my mum better than I do!"

Who came up with the thought of making a movie on Shakuntala Devi?

Anu: I don't think Anupama ever had that thought. She was living a quiet life in London with her family and I went and scratched that.

I was looking to tell stories about women and science.

I have always felt that you need to show all kinds of women on screen.

We found out that Anu lives in London. I live in London too, so I got her phone number.

It was a lovely first call. It felt that we'd known each other for a very long time.

We decided to meet for coffee so Nayanika (Mahtani, writer) and I met her at Harrod's, which was her mum's favourite place in London. We spent six hours there!

You've always had strong women characters in your projects, from Waiting to Four More Shots and now, Shakuntala Devi. Are you drawn to strong female characters?

Anu" I don't think you can call them strong female characters, they are multi-faceted women.

They lead their lives front-footed, but they all make mistakes.

They are all vulnerable.

I don't think anyone is uni-dimensionally strong, whether it was in Waiting or Four More Shots.

They all made mistakes.

Similarly, even though Shakuntala was a genius, she made mistakes. But she made amends.

For women characters to be credible on screen, they have to be sacrificing.

If you are great at something, you have to make sure you are balanced all around, like you are the best daughter, best whatever, so that you can be revered for what you do.

To change that narrative has been my endeavour.

So I wouldn't say these women are strong, but they embrace their weaknesses as well as strengths.

That's the biggest lesson from Shakuntala Devi. She was okay when things were not perfect, she tried to move on.

Just saying she was strong is not the right way to approach it because it's important for women to know that you don't have to be strong all the time.

You can fail.

Sometimes things will not happen.

But that does not mean that the things that you have achieved are less.

To own your successes as strongly and not feel apologetic about your failures that has been what I tried to build in my characters.

IMAGE: Vidya Balan and Sanya Malhotra in Shakuntala Devi.

What was your mum like, Anupama?

Anupama: In terms of her achievements, we know she was a genius. She was brilliant with numbers.

In terms of her personality, she was this vivacious person with loads of energy.

She wanted to conquer the world.

She was a larger-than-life kind of person.

She wouldn't sit in a room and work out numbers. She wanted to share it with the world.

Of course, she struggled, she came up the hard way. But she did it as calmly as she could.

She even wrote a book called Cookery For Men because she believed that men needed to learn to cook.

She wrote a book on homosexuality which was very, very, progressive for that period because no one really spoke about it and she spoke about it openly.

The film's trailer shows that your relationship with your mother was rough at times.

Anupama: It was a volatile relationship.

Right, Anu? Would you call it that?

Anu: Yes, definitely.

Anupama: It wasn't a bed of roses. But like Anu says, at the end of the day, it was like a love affair between mother and daughter. Hence, the turbulence.

We loved each other intensely. She was my whole family. She was everything to me.

On her part, she was bringing up this daughter against all odds.

Initially, the film started out as a biopic. But as we started unraveling her life, Anu and Nayanika realised a lot more had to be brought to the forefront.

So Nayanika, Anu, my husband Ajay and I would sit together and draw out what was relevant.

Do you think today's women will relate with Shakuntala Devi?

Anu: It is a very relevant story because she lived 50 years ahead of her time.

She was very progressive.

All of us are very apologetic about our successes, our careers, and we try to balance.

Plus, we have very complex relationships with our mothers!

We are going through what she went through.

What was it like to have Vidya Balan play Shakuntala Devi?

Anupama: I knew who Vidya was. When we were living in India, we went to watch her movie Parineeta and we took my father.

He doesn't actually say people are beautiful. Like if I point to someone and say, isn't she gorgeous, he would say, 'ummm, she's okay.'

But when he saw Vidya Balan, he was like, 'Wow, she is beautiful!'

That kind of stuck in my head.

Obviously, the movie wasn't about picking a beautiful actress, there was a lot more to it.

My mother had a vivacious personality and it had to come out, and Vidya was our only choice.

Her performance is astounding!

She is mummy on screen!

They have a lot of similarities in their personality. Vidya is so good with numbers, I was shocked at how she was able to rattle off all those numbers.

My husband Ajay and our daughter are very overwhelmed with her performance.

Anu: It has been a beautiful collaboration. She gives a 1,000 percent. She is every director's dream.

It is a known fact that once you work with Vidya, you start writing scripts for her all your life!

Did you know Sanya Malhotra who plays you?

Anupama: Yes, I had seen a movie of hers...

Anu: Dangal.

Anupama: Was that her first movie? Yes!

Obviously, I didn't know her as well as I knew Vidya.

Anu: Her mother was such a larger than life character and Anu knows how to hold her ground in a scary way, without raising her voice...

Anupama: Anu!!

Anu: (Laughs)... So we needed someone who had a softness. Because they had such a volatile relationship, they had to be equals on screen. That's why the quiet pataaka that Sanya is, their chemistry is amazing.

Anupama: I don't watch too many Bollywood movies, but if something comes recommended, we watch it.

If it is a Vidya movie, I'd tell Ajay, 'We've got to watch it, it's got Vidya in it.'

That's why I wasn't aware of all the actresses.

Anu: Now I think she is well versed with everything!

Anupama: It's really funny now, when I say something to Anu, she'll be like, 'Remember, when your mum said this'...

And I'd be like, oh right, I forgot about that.

You wonder who knows who better. She knows my mum better than I do!

Anu: Yes, there are so many stories, I feel I have experienced all of that.

Like how her mum would hate it when people kept calling her a genius.

She wanted to be the fun person in the room, so she always wanted interesting people around her.

She would get bored if people called her a Miss Human Computer or put her on a pedestal all the time.

RONJITA KULKARNI