Matthew Brown talks of his film that explores the friendship between mathematicians Ramanujan and Hardy.
Film-maker Matthew Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity , which was recently launched at the International Film Festival of India, is a film that showcases the friendship between mathematicians Srinivasa Ramanujan and G. H. Hardy at Cambridge, in the backdrop of World War I – the clash of their belief systems set off against their common passion for numbers. The director spoke to Shubashree Desikan about how he made the film.
Writing and directing The Man Who Knew Infinity has taken you ten years, nearly. Please describe this process.
When you say ten years – that’s how long it’s taken to make it. One person does not work on the same thing for ten years. It’s gone through different incarnations, you know. As a writer you go through different drafts. Then you show it to other people who say, we’d be interested if you do this and this…then you have to decide whether “this and this” is something you want to do. It’s a constant transformation. [Every year or two] I would evaluate whether or not the film was still something I felt strongly about. But I did a pretty solid reworking of the script the last time. And that’s what we shot.
What was the most difficult part of deciding what goes in and what stays out?
When, as a writer or director, you grow to love a scene or aspect of it, and you realise even if you love it, you have to cut it, that’s a sad day.
The other hard part was that you don’t get to do the things you wanted to do… I am also a young director and I have not done very many projects. As a director there were a lot of things I wish I could have accomplished on this film that we did not have the money or the time to do. That was hard.
What aspect of the story impressed you?
It’s an amazing story of friendship, and I think that the world, if I may say, needs more stories of people coming together. That’s what this story is about.
In adapting a book to film, you have to choose carefully. Can you describe this process?
I just followed my instincts really. I read the book that Robert [Kanigel] wrote, a few times. I went through it and made notes.
The book covers birth to death. And then it goes into the background of all the characters. I can’t tell a movie that’s from the day he [Ramanujan] arrives to the day he dies. I always knew that for the first act of the film, it was important to show him in his homeland, because if we don’t know what he is giving up to leave, then we don’t know his character. That was a trick — how much of India do you show?
I focussed on the year before he goes to Trinity and the time at Trinity and a little bit on his return.
Was tackling the math difficult?
It was difficult, but I had wonderful help in Ken Ono. And Robert Kanigel laid so much groundwork for me.
It was difficult in the sense that you don’t want to alienate your audience. But with the actors that we chose and the performances they gave, we were able to show the passion for mathematics and it was not so important what we were saying as much as the subtext about their relationship and the passion that they have for the work they’re trying to accomplish.
Hardy says religion, except in the most practical way, played no role in Ramanujan’s life, whereas Kanigel talks about Namagiri … which one did you chose?
I went with Kanigel. I don’t think that Hardy got to know Ramanujan until he was sick, until much later in life, from the research that I saw.
And when he did get to know him, maybe he told himself that. I don’t know, there are different schools of thought on that, but, from everything that I have read, aside from Kanigel, from Indian writers, it was very clear that Ramanujan was deeply religious.
He came up with so many ideas… different theorems that were religiously based. So I disagree with Hardy… We never tried to show in the film that he is having this religious awakening and all of a sudden Namagiri puts formulas in his tongue. He worked really, really hard, in many ways. But he was also very intuitive. He didn’t like the idea of intuition… not for nothing did he [Ramanujan] say a formula has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God. That’s his words, not anybody else’s.
I think we show someone who is deeply religious but who also breaks his caste to chase a dream, to be understood, to be able to share his knowledge and to be able to produce more with the help of others.
Interesting anecdotes from the making of the film…
My elephant walked off the set. He had to go to a wedding!
No, really! I had an elephant at the temple, we were shooting, and I went away to shoot something else, when I came back and I needed to shoot the elephant, the elephant walked out on us. Broke my heart. (Laughs)
Trinity College allowed us to shoot at the University. It was the first film that has ever been given permission to shoot there. That was humbling and incredible and it’s because of how much they cared about this story being told. They’d read the script, they knew there was racism, that they perhaps originally did not do right by Ramanujan, but they embraced this film and the story being told.
What was shooting in India like?
Shooting in India was amazing. It felt like the opposite of what Ramanujan must’ve felt in going from India to England. But I did not find it easy, because… we had fireworks going off on Saturday nights in Chennai because of weddings, and we had to shoot on roads that were blocked off by police because of strike…. It was tricky.
Tell us about your earlier work.
My existence over the past 14 years has been as a screenwriter. I have written a number of screenplays for Hollywood and for other directors, all in different stages of development. This is really in many ways my first film. I will be very happy if people connect with the film. That’s all I want.
In this film, you said you tried to err on the side of authenticity…
In trying to make a movie about an Indian mathematician at the turn of the century, essentially you are dealing with a period piece. You are dealing with mathematics! You are dealing with all these things that are incredibly unsexy to financiers. Over the years I have been asked to have him fall in love with a white nurse from Trinity, have an affair there.
I can’t do that. That’s not the story. I’ve got to honour the man and his story. As a result it took longer, but I think it happened in the right way.
Now is everything perfectly accurate? We had to cut down on some characters, shorten things in places, had to make changes that you have to make! But overall, I feel very, very proud and I can hold my head up that we honoured this story.