They got the formula wrong



The first few scenes in Gnana Rajasekaran’s Ramanujan , which details the life of the mathematics genius, are all about the acknowledgement of this genius. As a boy, he baffles his teacher with an astute argument about the value of zero. Thereon, he baffles college-goers, a ticket collector on a train, his headmaster — the word ‘genius’ is dropped frequently. The wide-eyed headmaster exclaims “Not a single mistake” when a look would have sufficed — this is not a film that’s shy about letting the dialogue do most of the heavy lifting.

Later, men in influential positions recognise that this is someone special, and that he should not be saddled with lowly jobs. He should be left free to continue his research. (And he still gets his salary.) It looks like a dream life. And yet, the crux of the film is how underappreciated Ramanujan (Abhinay Vaddi) was in his own country.

Genre: Biopic Director: Gnana Rajasekaran Cast: Abhinay Vaddi, Suhasini, Bhama Story: The story of the great (and underappreciated) mathematician. Bottomline: Genius deserves better.

Perhaps the point is he wasn’t as appreciated as he was in Cambridge University, when Professor GH Hardy (Kevin McGowan) took “the Indian clerk” under his wing and showcased his work to the world — but we don’t see how Ramanujan could claim that he was unrecognised and that he was struggling for two square meals a day. (We hear it; we don’t see it.)

Ramanujan is evidently a labour of love and even a necessary film — in an age where we don’t read as much as we watch movies, cinematic representations of important people and events are extremely valuable — but it doesn’t flesh out its central conceit, the contrast between the supposedly miserable life the mathematician led in India and the (relative) bliss he found abroad. All the while, it appears that Ramanujan was far better off than his fellow clerks, who still had to slave away at their desks, when he was given a private chamber in which to tend his genius.

When we watch Amadeus , we are drawn into Mozart’s life because the music draws us in. In Gnana Rajasekaran’s own Bharathi , the rousing poetry drew us in. But mathematics isn’t something you can put up on screen. The director doesn’t go in for flashy filmmaking, the kind we saw in A Beautiful Mind , where the scene where the protagonist cracks a code is presented in a way that makes us feel he is in some kind of mystical communication with numbers. Here, we only see Ramanujan hunched over his papers and that’s not enough.

The film runs nearly three hours and it’s puzzling why it needed to. Did we really need two separate scenes where the professor (Radha Ravi) proclaims what a genius Ramanujan is? Did we really need to be introduced to Hardy’s sister Gertrude? There appears to have been no effort to streamline the events of Ramanujan’s life. The casting doesn’t help. Abhinay Vaddi was reportedly chosen because he resembles Ramanujan, but he is unable to put across a character we can root for or empathise with.

The writing, too, fails to make Ramanujan interesting, the way Mozart was in Amadeus , or Bharathiyar was in Bharathi . We get all the exterior details — the ‘eccentricities’ — Ramanujan speaks to flowers the way Bharathiyar embraced a donkey — but the most interesting aspects of Ramanujan’s inner life remain undramatised. The key to the man, it appears, is that he was a believer when most Western mathematicians were rationalists. He says that he sees his family deity, Namagiri Thaayar, in his dreams and when he wakes up, he has the answers to his maths problems. Why not take us into these dreams?

Hardy, too, never coheres into a living-breathing character. It’s understandable that the much-debated gay angle of his relationship with Ramanujan is not explored, but even otherwise, barring one fascinating sliver of insight about his relationship with mirrors, he has all the weight and depth of a Disney-era fairy godmother.

He’s just there to wave a white-man’s wand and fix Ramanujan’s problems. There’s some good music by Ramesh Vinayagam. (‘Vinkadandha jothiyaai’ is particularly exquisite, and its placement in the narrative is perfect.) And there are good performances by Y Gee Mahendra (as Ramanujan’s colleague) and ‘Nizhalgal’ Ravi (as Ramanujan’s father). But if Ramanujan comes to life at all, it’s in the scenes with Suhasini, who plays Ramanujan’s mother. The character is the Tam-Brahm answer to the dragon-mothers from Tennessee Williams’ plays, and the only time I laughed is when she snubs her meek daughter-in-law Janaki (Bhama). I wished we were watching her story instead. She wants to control her son’s life, and schemes to keep him away from Janaki. All of this is garden-variety melodrama, right out of the Visu handbook, but there’s at least a vulgar, what-next curiosity in these portions, the satisfaction of seeing real human beings.

The great man certainly deserved a better movie.

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Printable version | May 24, 2022 11:02:07 pm |