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A fresh insight into Ramanujan

There are many sides to Ramanujan which make The Man Who Knew Infinity an exciting project. A still from the movie.  

‘Saagaavaram pola sumayum undo (Is there a burden comparable to immortality)’ ran the lyrics of a song in a recent Tamil film, Uttama Villan, by Kamal Haasan. The burden is beautiful, though, and many seek to embrace it consciously. And then there are those who render immortal the people who inspire them, through their works of literature, art, and film. A handful bear the brunt of this heavy gift and make it available to anyone who comes in contact with them. One of the greatest mathematicians of all time, Srinivasa Ramanujan (December 22, 1887 – April 26, 1920) was one of this handful. In his fleeting passage through life, this giant uncovered enough pathways in number theory to keep mathematicians engaged even today, and lives on, 95 years after his tragic demise when he was just 32.

Robert Kanigel chose to call Ramanujan, “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” in his biography, published in 1991. This is also the title of a movie loosely based on this book, directed by Matt Brown, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, in a Gala Presentation, on September 17. Matt Brown worked on this film for a decade now. “It was a passion project for me… I was offered opportunities to make this film sooner if I made it more ‘commercial’ with false storylines, which I refused,” he says.

There are many sides to Ramanujan which make this an exciting project. One thing is, of course, the way he rose from literal rags to mathematical riches. His personal life, his attachment to his mother, his religious attitude, brilliant insights into mathematics, all of this makes his a very complex story to tell with many a fine line having to be drawn between sentiment and reality.

In words, now famous, he is said to have explained his own genius as Goddess Namagiri’s guidance; she apparently wrote the equations on his tongue. G.H. Hardy (1877 – 1947), the English mathematician who truly nurtured Ramanujan’s genius and brought it out for the world to see, writes in the first chapter of his book, Ramanujan: His Life and Work, thus: “I am sure that Ramanujan was no mystic and that religion, except in a strictly material sense, played no important part in his life.” This, from a man who met him every day and worked intimately with him from 1914 until the time he fell ill and never recovered; a man who writes, “… my association with him is the one romantic incident in my life.”

Ramanujan lived mathematics and breathed number theory. His mathematics was, and is, unique and demands a special treatment in his biopic. One can guess Dev Patel must have had his work cut out for him playing the mathematical genius. In reality, Ramanujan worked at a furious pace, spewing out theorems every day, making leaps into unknown territories. R. Balasubramanian, a leading mathematician from Chennai, says, “He used to bring out a hundred new ideas every day. How can he be expected to prove each one of them?” How this pace, this furious energy, is brought out in the film is something to look out for. According to Matt Brown, “Robert Kanigel introduced me to mathematicians Ken Ono, George Andrews and Manjul Bhargava. They are some of the best in the world and they could not have been more giving or helpful. We have a factual accuracy in all of the scenes and it is a tribute to them.”

In a video made by Emory University, where Ken Ono is a professor, Ken describes a scene where Dev Patel had to write a long equation, non-stop, on the black board (https://goo.gl/1Y1UeB). How to make this challenge easier for Dev Patel? Ken Ono thought out an equation that had a number of symmetries and a structure which made it easier to memorise and write out. “I helped with artwork, props and rehearsals. I chose formulas for letters, props, the classroom scenes, etc.”

Ramanujan’s life story has been caught on the screen a few times earlier. Nandhan Kudhiyadi’s centennial docu-drama, The Genius of Srinivasa Ramanujan, and Gnana Rajasekaran’s Tamil feature film, Ramanujan, have both been watched with interest. While the former was about famous mathematicians discussing Ramanujan, the latter was at least halfway a description of the life of Ramanujan’s wife, Janakiammal (1899 – 1994) during this period. Many people outside India have been informed about Ramanujan by another documentary. “There was a NOVA special on him on public television (channel PBS) in the U.S. Watching this when I was growing up, I was so touched by both his mathematics and his life,” says Manjul Bhargava of Princeton University.

Manjul Bhargava and Ken Ono are associate producers of the film. One can probe what the film would contain by talking to them about Ramanujan. According to Manjul Bhargava, “Much of Ramanujan’s early work was rediscovering mathematics that was already known, in his own way, before he started making his own remarkable contributions. This still inspires… it shows that working on your own, in your own way, instead of thinking just like everyone else has before you, can be a way to think more freely and creatively and make real breakthroughs…”

Matt Brown wanted to make sure that the mathematics was accurately portrayed. “They (Ken and Manjul) were always so patient in explaining the nuances and impact of Ramanujan’s work. Their passion really helped us in portraying the beauty and joy of doing mathematics in the interactions of Ramanujan and Hardy,” he says.

We have heard about Ramanujan’s letter to Hardy describing his solution of the partition function and the now-famous circle method. Also, while the whole body of his work is stunning to mathematicians, when coaxed, they do mention the so-called mock Theta functions. Will the film communicate the power and speciality of his mathematics? We must wait to see the film.

Matt Brown maintains, “The film is more a human story than a story about mathematics…We, of course, show some of the math that they (Hardy and Ramanujan) do, but that is incidental to the story. The main themes are perseverance, overcoming obstacles, pursuing one’s passions and the importance of connecting in human relationships.”


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Printable version | Jun 21, 2021 2:55:17 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/shubashree-desikan-on-the-man-who-knew-infinity/article7664895.ece

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