Meet the British actors who play pivotal roles in Ramanujan, a biopic on the mathematical genius

The under-production biopic Ramanujan, an Indo-British collaboration film directed by national award-winning director Gnana Rajasekaran and produced by Camphor Cinema, traces the journey of the ace mathematician from Kumbakonam to Cambridge. Being simultaneously shot in Tamil and English, the film stars established British stage and screen actors, Kevin McGowan, Richard Walsh and the young Michael Lieber in pivotal roles. Among other challenges, the biggest one for the British cast was learning Tamil and handling its nuances. Richard Walsh says, “Tamil was extremely difficult to master, but I managed it by pretending in my head that the words sounded like English phrases and then adding the necessary intent.” Richard Walsh plays Sir Francis Spring in Ramanujan, the director of the Madras Port Authority who realises that he has a mathematical genius working in his accounts office and makes it possible for him to study at Cambridge University through his contacts.

But being part of the prestigious project seems to have made everything worthwhile. “Srinivasa Ramanujan’s life is a very special story and to play any part in the telling of that story is an honour. The fact that G H Hardy was one of the people who brought Ramanujan and his work to global renown makes the honour all the more satisfying and rewarding,” says Kevin McGowan, who plays Professor Godfrey Harold Hardy, the mathematician who was at the forefront of English mathematics in the early part of the 20th Century.

Role research

Michael Lieber confesses that he hadn’t heard of Ramanujan before he was approached with the role. “When I signed on the project, the first thing I thought of was how I had not heard of Ramanujan before. It’s astonishing that a man of such brilliance, with such an amazing life story, has gone so long being relatively unknown globally, and I am thrilled to see he has been getting a lot of attention of late. I enjoyed researching as much as I could on Ramanujan’s work, and indeed, the works of G H Hardy and J E Littlewood as well,” he says. Michael plays the mathematician John Edensor Littlewood, a powerful and suave individual, “as well as a sort of a ladies’ man in the film”. He helped familiarise Ramanujan with the contemporary academic techniques of the time. Michael says that reading books like A Mathematician’s Apology and Littlewood’s Miscellany helped him. “I also went a step further in my research and contacted one of the last people still alive, who actually worked with the man, the renowned mathematician Professor Bela Bollobas. He was kind enough to meet me with his wife at the Athenaeum club in London to discuss what Littlewood was really like as a person.”

Kevin admits he too had only a hazy recollection of Ramanujan, from when he studied pure Maths at school. However, he researched through available material on Professor Hardy. “G H Hardy is a fascinating person. He was a gifted mathematician and a rather eccentric and complicated man who was working in a time of great political upheaval and social change. I read his book A Mathematician’s Apology, and although written later in his life, it gives an insight into the way a mathematician’s mind works. He was such a prominent figure in English science that there is a great deal of information available, which I happily dived into,” he says.

Linguistic barrier

Of the three, only Richard had the chance to visit Chennai and shoot here. “I had such a wonderful experience shooting in Chennai. The unfailing kindness of every member of the crew helped me through the daunting task of speaking in Tamil. The crew was a joy to work with, and the food in Chennai was good too! And one of my entrances on set was on the back of a motorbike driven at speed, by what appeared to be a stunt rider, and the scene was set for an interesting week. I am still regaling my friends in England with tales of Old Chennai!” he says.

Michael adds that Tamil is a beautiful language. “I would be lying if I said that the task of learning Tamil was not daunting at first, but once I got the hang of it I was able to appreciate what a beautiful language it is. There were many different ways of learning the Tamil lines; some used audio tapes, prompting, flash cards, or word boards. I learnt the meaning of the words and memorised chunks of dialogue.”

Kevin, meanwhile, is delving into Indian movies. “My introduction to Indian cinema is still in its infancy and largely confined to Hindi films such as Salaam Bombay (1988), Monsoon Wedding (2001), and, of course, Lagaan (2001).” Listening to the song Chale Chalo from Lagaan, he says he has just finished watching Mother India (1957). “I do want to watch Indian films in different languages; I’m looking forward to The Good Road (2013), which will be my first Gujarati film. I’m a sort of a science fiction fan and would quite like to see Mr India (1987) if I can get hold of a copy.”