Shakuntala Devi: Director Anu Menon On The Film’s Triumphs, Flaws And Its Depiction Of Homosexuality

Apart from the songs, this really was the other scene that I grappled with. Even when I am making a mainstream film, the stories I tell are not mainstream. It’s annoying when people don’t give you credit when you’re subverting a genre.

Shakuntala Devi: Director Anu Menon On The Film's Triumphs, Flaws And Its Depiction Of Homosexuality
Shakuntala Devi: Director Anu Menon On The Film's Triumphs, Flaws And Its Depiction Of Homosexuality

Shakuntala Devi, a film produced by the Vikram Malhotra-led Abundantia Entertainment and Sony Pictures, was originally scheduled for a theatrical release before the coronavirus pandemic forced the makers to opt for an Amazon Prime Video release.

The Vidya Balan-starrer, directed by Anu Menon (London, Paris, New York, Waiting, Four More Shots S1) with dialogues by Ishita Moitra, carries a tonality that indicates that it was originally written for the theatrical experience.

The tone is loud, the dialogues have a seeti-maar quality and the performance of its leading star falls in the mould of a larger-than-life hero, the kind you’d see a Salman Khan or Ajay Devgn play (of course, Shakuntala Devi exists without the misogyny and sexism, rather as a counter to that).

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While it’s an engaging story of a complex woman who struggled in her personal life, the film has met with criticism, primarily because of the way it handles the supposed homosexuality of Shakuntala Devi’s husband.

In this interview with HuffPost India, Anu Menon clears the air about why the depiction was the way it was, the reasons behind the film’s visual language and what surprised her the most about Vidya Balan.

What I liked the most about ‘Shakuntala Devi’ was that it gave the character the Chulbul Pandey treatment. Initially, the lack of subtlety put me off, but later it appeared that the film’s loud tone mirrors the personality of its protagonist.

Thank you. If you watched it with your family, maybe you would have felt that even more. If you watch it alone, then the pitch feels higher. I know the volume I’ve put in and why. When you go to a theatre, you need that energy. I got a lot of love for Waiting after it went on Netflix. When people saw it in the theatre, they thought it was good. When they saw it alone, they wept.

Having made a film like Waiting, I think I know how to make a quiet film. But when you are writing a film like Shakuntala Devi, you underline the comedy a bit more. The most loved scene in the film is the ‘normal’ scene. It is an Ishita Moitra scene. I had written a scene which was so subdued and muted, she said ‘no, let me tell you how it should be played’. I was giggling when she sent me her scene. At that moment, I realised why I hired her.

Because you wouldn’t naturally come up with something like that?

Instinctively, I’m more muted. I don’t have that chulbula-ness (playfulness) in me. The character is just not me, the character is a drama queen and I knew Ishita has that. Her politics are bang on but she’s a 90s Bollywood baby and I’ve never watched any of those films. So that’s not my instinct but doesn’t mean I can’t get the right person for the job. That’s why you are a director.

How would you have directed it if it was an Amazon or Netflix project? Do you think it would’ve had a different aesthetic style?

I wouldn’t have had the songs. The arc of the script would have been different. I don’t think the energy of the film would have changed but you need the songs for marketing and stuff. If I had a three-act structure, I cannot not introduce Sanya till after the interval. Those choices are what would make it different. When you have to deliver a Hindi film, you’ve to factor for the interval which messes with your structure. The way the music has been used, too, would be different. I would not go so dramatic. Because you’re consuming it intimately, not in a theatre. This kind of stuff happens for Hollywood films too. If you watch Little Women, it’s so elevated as a film!

I felt that on many occasions, the foregrounding was too on-the-nose. The way Shakuntala’s past catches up with her future, where she becomes the same person she hates the most, was spoon-fed and clinically handled.

I think it’s the curse of the second half. The struggle to reach the interval point with a dramatic scene. If I had a three-part structure, I don’t think the restaurant scene would have been there. The mother-daughter scene where Shakuntala tries showing Anu the black book, before she finds out she’s pregnant. That scene is a pre-interval one. I was always a bit unsure of it.

Apart from the songs, this really was the other scene that I grappled with. Even when I am making a mainstream film, the stories I tell are not mainstream. It’s annoying when people don’t give you credit when you’re subverting a genre.

Leading up to the interval is always a very tricky thing. A lot of reasons why it’s a problem for our films, our second half doesn’t work because we’re writing a climax halfway through. Then you have to come back and start all over again. Writing this script killed me, the editing even more so.

If I could remove that scene, I would have but it’s very important because she’s giving the black book in that scene and it comes back in the end. You just hope that people don’t notice these flaws and just go with the energy of the film. But, no film is perfect. Just like our protagonist.

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