Srinivasa Ramanujan was as much a Tamil as he was a mathematical prodigy. Indeed, he was a staunch Brahmin, in his mannerisms, speech and views, and if one were to alienate him from all these traits, the very character may well suffer.
This is precisely where Matthew Brown’s movie on the mathematician, The Man Who Knew Infinity -- which opened the International Film Film Festival of India here on Friday evening -- seems to ring false, especially after Gnana Rajasekaran’s Tamil biopic on the genius, Ramanujan, had been seen in 2014. Rajasekaran had ably captured the intimate nuances of the Tamil Iyengar community. He had brought alive quite vividly the mood and essence of Ramanujan’s period, the stifling prejudices and so on. Take away all these from the man, he is as good as zero.
Brown’s work somehow falls short of portraying these qualities that made Ramanujan into what we knew him, and Dev Patel, despite his fairly good acting skills, does not appear like a Tamil Brahmin boy, who left his young wife and mother to cross the seas (considered a sin in the 1920’s India) to study and publish his papers.
Although Abhinav Vaadi playing Ramanujan in Rajasekaran’s work might not have been quite up to the mark, he looked and sounded the character, unlike Patel, who comes off more as an Anglicised example of one so essentially Indian, nay Tamil. And Bhama, who is seen as his screen wife and Suhasini Mani Ratnam as his mother were very good in infusing their characters with the all the required traits. In Brown’s work, Devika Bhise as Ramanujan’s wife just does not jell.
Yes, Jeremy Irons, who essays GH Hardy in Brown’s biopic of sorts -- the man who invites Ramanujan to Cambridge -- is excellent. This is the most persuasive aspect of the movie that shows him as a cricket loving, pipe-smoking Englishman, more interested in solving complex mathematical equations than understanding fellow humans. But then Hardy, who initially insists that Ramanujan show proofs of his discoveries, begins to gradually understand that the young wizard when he says that God Namagiri comes to him with the answers.
An almost cold Hardy begins to feel a sense of responsibility towards Ramanujan as he fights the bitter British cold and the cruel racism, finally to be defeated by tuberculosis.
Watch the trailer of The Man Who Knew Infinity here:
Brown may be a little messy and high brow, but he does manage to put together a good narrative, a kind of story telling that reminds one of James-Ivory classics. The film is beautifully photographed, and Cambridge looks just wonderful -- most of the movie having been shot there.
But as much as Brown tries to get into a Tamil way of life in his work, he falters, with even Patel’s pronunciation of some of the Tamil words going all wrong. In the ultimate analysis, Brown’s work may seem more like a piece of exotica -- and this was exactly how Ramanujan was treated by students and professors at Cambridge.
Rajasekaran’s film, despite not being quite up there as far production values go, had a far greater feel of authenticity that Brown’s effort to create a man who knew infinity.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran is covering the Film Bazaar at IFFI.)