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Too Smart To Be A Good Mother? A Feminist Reimagining Of Shakuntala Devi

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A thinking woman was considered such a breach of nature that a Harvard doctor reported during his autopsy on a Radcliffe graduate he discovered that her uterus had shrivelled to the size of a pea -The Madwoman in the Attic

When Shakuntala Devi, starring Vidya Balan, released on July 31, the audience was curious to get a sneak peek into the life of Shakuntala Devi, the prodigious Mathematician who lived life on her own terms. The movie depicts various facets of Shakuntala’s life; a mathematician, a daughter, a wife but most specifically, a mother. Yes, we wanted the glimpse of Shakuntala Devi as a person and her interpersonal relationships. However, the movie fails to lay emphasis on what the audiences were most curious to see: Shakuntala’s mathematical talent.

The movie makes it seem like Shakuntala did not have to put any work to achieve her mathematical abilities. It seems like her mathematical talent is solely God’s gift to her. It fails to emphasize on her struggles and hard work that she must have put in to achieve the title of human-computer.

In fact, the only hard work that we see Shakuntala doing in the movie is when her Spanish boyfriend teaches her English etiquettes to make her more ladylike. With that, Shakuntala’s transformation to a Victorian angel on-screen is complete whose power in Ruskin’s words “is not for rule, not for battle, and her intellect is not for invention or creation, but for sweet orderings” of domesticity.

At the beginning of the movie, Shakuntala says, “Mujhe yeh mard aurat ke beech ka antar kabhi samajh nahi aaya” (I never understood the difference between a man and a woman). It seems like the writers of the film, Anu Menon and Niyanka Mahtani, took it upon themselves to explain that “antar” (difference) between men and women. As Shakuntala marries and becomes a mother, we see her emerging as a woman who chooses her profession along with motherhood. But her rise is as sudden as her fall into the same pit of tradition and convention that she is trying to emerge from.

The stereotypical gender roles resurface despite the extraordinary attempt of Shakuntala to maintain a balance between work and domestic life. She is continuously forced to make a choice- to be an ambitious woman or to be a mother. She only becomes an ideal mother when she swaps her journal of mathematical talents with the memories she has made with her daughter or when she cancels all her professional meetings and tours to spend holidays with her daughter. She can either be proud of her accomplishment as a mathematician or her accomplishment as a mother.

This pitting of motherhood against ambition is the greatest pitfall of Anu Menon’s representation of Shakuntala Devi.

The Movie Feeds Into False (And Problematic) Stereotypes

In a recent article published in eShe magazine, Niyanka Mahtani claims that “making motherhood synonymous with sacrifice is unfair to women” and that is what she aimed to undo through Shakuntala Devi. However, the movie fails to establish what she claims it aims to do. Shakuntala’s maternal delinquents are seen as the direct result of her relentless ambition. This only intensifies the debate of whether working and ambitious women can be good mothers.

When Shakuntala feels bad after hearing that her daughter spoke the first word ‘Papa’, we see the marginalization of the father’s role as a primary caretaker. The umbilical cord that attaches the child to a mother confines the mother and curtails her freedom to think about herself. Shakuntala’s daughter thus grows up to resent her for not choosing her and for being self-indulgent. If all of this is not enough, we further see the transformation of Shakuntala’s daughter from a woman who does not want a child at the first place to the woman who is extremely happy when she gets to know that she is pregnant.

This only proves that every woman, no matter what she says, has inherent motherly instincts. When Shakuntala’s daughter rushes back to home because she is feeling bad for leaving the kid at home with a nanny, the movie establishes where women, especially mothers, are supposed to be: at home taking care of the children while the husbands attend to business.

This is not the kidnapping of individual experience for a feminist cause. Maybe things happened in Shakuntala Devi’s life in exactly the manner as the movie depicts, but we wanted to watch the movie to not see Shakuntala Devi- the mother but Shakuntala Devi- the prodigious Mathematician. In fact, a movie was made about Shakuntala Devi in the first place not because she was a mother but on account of her exceptional mathematical talent that the movie fails to focus on.

There’s nothing wrong with presenting the motherly aspect of her persona in the movie but to let it overshadow everything else is the problem. In Mathew Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity about Srinivasa Ramanujan (the celebrated Indian mathematician), the audience witnesses Ramanujan longing for his wife but it only forms a subplot of a larger picture. The movie portrays Ramanujan’s devotion to his wife but it majorly highlights the hunger of a scholar who works his way through the magic of equations.

This contrast also reminds me of a recently released Netflix series, Alexa Garcia, about a 13-year-old girl with a PhD who works at JBL. However, unlike the series of Young Sheldon (about a smart boy) where we see the flowering of a curious young mind, Alexa Garcia (about a smart girl) focuses on Alexa’s crushes, relationships and fashion choices.

The traditional binaries of feminity thus restrict the vast, ontological, almost overweening intellectual ambition of women on screen.

Even though media houses have started giving prominent roles to women in 2020, the representation of intellectual women still seems to be out of line with reality. These romanticized portrayals attempt to domesticate the smart women rather than celebrating their intellectual seriousness.

About the Author: Urvi Sharma is a PhD Research Scholar enrolled in Panjab University. Her interest areas include Gender Studies, Literature and Cultural Studies. The unequivocal appreciation of the movie, Shakuntala Devi made her write the aspects that she felt were upsetting to see on screen in 2020.
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  1. Urvi Sharma

    Ashley* Garcia

  2. Taylor Guerrero

    Smart mothers are best! Those aren`t divided terms , they should unite in a person, who made some particular life choices.

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