Friday Review

Travails of a genius

A view of Ramanujan's house in Kumbakonam, Thanjavur. Photo: M. Srinath

A view of Ramanujan's house in Kumbakonam, Thanjavur. Photo: M. Srinath  

Seven cities fought for Homer dead,

Through which, Homer living, begged his bread.

These lines, indicating the harsh treatment the world reserves for men of genius and its celebration later of their triumph, could well have been written for mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan too. Kumbakonam, where he studied, claims him as her son. Residents of Triplicane take pride in the fact that Ramanujan resided there. Yet Ramanujan’s life, whether in Kumbakonam or Madras, was fraught with difficulties. Poverty (while a student in Pachaiappa’s college, he could not afford to buy a cap that cost less than 50 paise), dejection (he ran away from home in 1905), lack of proper guidance, and inability of others to comprehend the magnitude of his genius - any one of these could have totally smothered Ramanujan’s brilliance.

In the book on Ramanujan by Dr. S.R. Ranganathan, father of library science in India, N. Raghunathan, Ramanujan’s classmate in school and later a professor of mathematics, said that none of the “mathematical higher ups in India correctly gauged the extent and nature of Ramanujan’s capacity.”

Would it be possible to make a commercially successful film on Ramanujan? Srivatsan Nadathur, Sharanyan Nadathur, Sindhu Rajasekaran and Sushanth Desai, founders of Camphor Cinema, think so, and their first production is a film on Ramanujan. Director Gnana Rajasekaran, whom they approached, had three scripts ready, but the one on Ramanujan was their unanimous choice.

The film is being shot simultaneously in Tamil and English. Sindhu and Roxanne Derouen from the U.K. are assisting Rajasekaran with the English script.

The house in which Ramanujan lived in Kumbakonam has been bought by SASTRA University and is being preserved as a museum. The crew is just back from a shoot in Kumbakonam when I meet them, and they’ve had many interesting experiences. “Visiting the house where Ramanujan lived has become a sort of pilgrimage for students,” says Sindhu. “SASTRA University has installed a bust of Ramanujan in the house, and we had to cover this during the shoot. A student disappointed at finding it covered, took the blessings of the actor playing the role of Ramanujan!” she elaborates.

Srivatsan says that he was moved by the help they received from the residents of Kumbakonam. “A postman said, ‘I will not accept payment. I am proud to belong to the same town as Ramanujan’.”

Director Rajasekaran has to his credit two popular biopics, one on Bharatiar and the other on Periyar. There are a lot of dramatic elements in the lives of Bharatiar and Periyar, but the world of pure mathematics is far removed from most people.

Romancing numbers

Can mathematics be the point of orientation of a film? It is always lonely at the top, and Ramanujan was at the top of the heap. So how does one make a successful film on one who was romancing numbers? “It is certainly not easy. But it is not impossible,” says Rajasekaran.

Why Ramanujan? “I want people to think about how we as a society view a genius in our midst.”

Is his film based on any particular book? “No, but of all the books on Ramanujan that I read, I found Ragami’s book the most interesting. It has life, and it’s only such books that can help a script writer conceive a film. And Ramanujan’s wife, Janaki Ammal, had observed that Ragami’s book painted a vivid picture of life in Ramanujan’s family.”

Details about Janaki’s life in Ramanujan’s family are sketchy. So will there be romantic moments in the film? “Actually, the lack of information appealed to my creativity, and I enjoyed imagining conversations between Ramanujan and Janaki. These were among the most challenging portions of the script.”

Abhinay, the grandson of Gemini Ganesan and Savitri, is the hero of the film. “I chose Abhinay, because his eyes have the piercing look that Ramanujan’s eyes are supposed to have had,” points out Rajasekaran.

Abhinay who is being tutored to speak Iyengar Tamil, says, “The director suggested that I should not read any book on Ramanujan, but just gave me some notes and gave me the freedom to fix the character.”

P. Krishnamurthy, who has won four National Awards, is the Art director. He says, “I had to modify the setting in Ramanujan’s house in Kumbakonam, because it is no longer a living house. Every small detail mattered, even the marapaachi bommais, which every Brahmin house had in those days.”

While a genius like Ramanujan may appear once in a century, or perhaps not even that, what would happen to a modern day Ramanujan? Ramanujan was refused a scholarship in the Kumbakonam college, because he failed in English composition, and things have not changed today. We still have a system that would try to fit a genius into a procrustean bed of conformity.

In his book, ‘The Conquest of Happiness’, Bertrand Russell writes, “There is a comfortable doctrine that genius will always make its way… It is like the theory that murder will out. Obviously, all the murders we know of have been discovered, but who knows how many there may be which have never been heard of? In like manner, all the men of genius that we have heard of have triumphed over adverse circumstances, but that is no reason for supposing that there were not innumerable others, who succumbed in youth.”

Ramanujan became internationally renowned, albeit after many reverses, but who knows how many will, if we continue to provide the most discouraging education system? If after seeing this film, people begin to think about the changes needed in our education system, then Rajasekaran may be said to have achieved his goal in making this film.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2020 9:40:38 PM |

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