Bollywood actress Vidya Balan, who portrays the mathematical genius, described her as an “Indian village girl who has taken the world by storm.”
Shakuntala Devi’s uncanny ability to handle numbers has earned her a place in the Guinness Book of World Records and made her a minor celebrity who travels the world.
In the official trailer for the biopic of the same name, Balan can be seen cheekily asking a room full of people whether she should “give the answer from left to right or right to left” when asked to multiply two multi-digit numbers.
A video of the real Shakuntala Devi doing the same in an interview with Canada’s Asian Television Network (ATN) has been viewed more than half a million times since it was posted online in April 2013, when she died at the age of 83.
Balan told the BBC that she also watched the film while preparing for her role.
In the video, the author of the question, a math student at a Canadian university, says “it would take a calculator three minutes to give the answer,” but Shakuntala Devi gets it right in seconds.
And for his 1982 Guinness Book record, he multiplied two 13-digit numbers, chosen at random by a computer, in front of an audience of 1,000 people at the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London. It took 28 seconds, including the time to recite the 26-digit answer.
Balan says Shakuntala Devi was not only a mathematical genius but also had an alternative career as an astrologer. She wrote books on astrology, cooking, mathematics and crime. She also wrote a book calling for the decriminalization of homosexuality, which was a major problem not only in India but in most parts of the world in the 1970s.
“He was many things. He lived his life on his own terms, he wasn’t afraid or apologetic, and to think that was 50 years ago.”
Balan says that when director Anu Menon met her two years ago and “I learned about the ups and downs of Shakuntala Devi’s life, I said, ‘Oh my God! This is a film waiting to be made.
Bollywood biopics usually end up as hagiographies, but Balan promises this is different. He doesn’t want to give away too much of the plot, but says it’s a “full-fledged biopic.”
“Geniuses are not perfect people, that’s the beauty of life, and that’s the beauty of this film. Everyone goes through ups and downs in life, it’s not just for the less fortunate. And that’s what makes it such a healthy biopic.”
Balan says he hopes the film will entertain people at a time when everyone is stuck at home because of the pandemic.
“I also hope it will change the way math is taught, make it more interesting, take the fear out of the subject and get more people to take it.”