How does one describe, let alone cinematically circumscribe, the life of an unvarnished genius like Srinivasa Ramanujan, who at the age of 32 had burnt himself out -- scorned, smothered and snuffed out by his own unplumbed brilliance.
This is not an easy story to tell. Director Matthew Brown wisely follows the course set down by Robert Kanigel’s biography of Ramanujan. As seen through the prism of poignant artlessness and a belief that the mathematical genius flows from the will of God, true to the somber end to its unrehearsed design, the narrative seems to flow almost by divine ordinance.
The story of a simple human being with a complex mathematical mind that he failed to explain to himself, let alone to the world which marvelled at his prodigious skills, is told with such charm and tenderness that you are left contemplating not so much the inexplicable genius of the man as his simplicity, innocence and humanity.
There are two love stories coursing through the arteries of this agile yet supine biopic. Ramanujan’s unfulfilled love for his wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) whom he leaves behind in the village in Tamil Nadu in the dubious care of his mother (Arundhati Nag) is imagined as a famished, restless relationship pining for consumption.
Dev Patel and newcomer Devika Bhise play out this love story of spousal separation with aching ardour staged by the seaside to signify the theme of a thirst that cannot be quenched.
But it’s the other love story that provides a centre to the tale of the mathematical wizard’s quest for a harmony between self-discovery and worldly success. The complex ambivalent relationship between young Ramanujan and his British mentor G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) at Cambridge furnishes a compelling sensitivity and a supple ardour to the academic context of the theme.
Here are two men belonging to two completely different generations and cultures, tied by their mutual passion for numbers. Jeremy Irons plays Hardy as a man who is so consumed by numbers he has found no time to cultivate human relationships. Suddenly when Ramanujan’s callow erudition sweeps into Hardy's life, he feels a change within himself, a suspended emotional upheaval that Hardy recognises as “the closest to romantic love”.
The mentor-pupil relationship is governed by intellectual and emotional complexities. Brown -- whose last film, the underrated "Ropewalk", came 16 years ago -- doesn’t gloss over these complexities. He allows the two actors to tackle the abundance of emotional and intellectual infinities headlong.
There is miraculous chemistry at work between Irons and Patel, a chemistry that allows the two actors to individualise and associate the two characters with all their quirks and suppressed angst. It’s a pleasure beyond measure to watch the two actors own their characters as though by birthright.
Irons’ supreme command over his character is no surprise. He has a lifetime of experience to support him to give life to Hardy’s academically arid existence. When he speaks to his Indian protégé, he doesn’t make eye contact. This is a man who has never touched the soul of another human being, man or woman.
It’s Patel’s Ramanujan that takes us by surprise. Patel owns the character with the same prideful yet humble authority as Ben Kingsley exercised on Gandhi. Patel’s Tamilian accent is neither exaggerated nor exhibited. The natural tone does slip off once in a while, but the stumbling stance adds to the humaneness of the character.
And yes, newcomer Bhise plays Ramanujan’s wife with gentle affinity. There are other exceedingly accomplished actors in the film like Toby Jones, but it’s Irons playing against Patel that we are looking at without missing a beat.
There is one sequence where the ill, dying, anguished and hungry Ramanujan lashes out at Hardy for not caring enough. Even though Patel owns that sequence, Irons hones it.
What lends added grace to the narrative is the authentic locations used in the film.
Whether it is Cambridge or the village in Tamil Nadu, the narrative visits Ramanujan’s life with vivid veracity. Larry Smith’s camera captures the pretty locations without allowing the frames to get over-laden with cuteness.
Authenticating and yoking Ramanujan’s intellect and existence could not have been easy. "The Man Who Knew Infinity" achieves the near-impossible task of bringing the genius’s inner turmoil in the same line of vision as his prodigious intellectual faculties.
Here is a rare film that allows us a lucid glimpse into the anguished heart of a soul that couldn’t fathom the depth of its own brilliance. Almost a century after Ramanujan’s death, this film unravels the mystique of the unschooled maestro who didn’t know why numbers meant so much to him.
We now know.
'The Man Who Knew Infinity': Simple and appealing
By Troy Ribeiro
The film, "The Man Who Knew Infinity", based on Robert Kanigel's book of the same name, is an inspiring biographical drama. It pays tribute to the genius mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan from Madras who made extraordinary contributions to the mathematical universe. It is a grim story of the great soul.
The film covers a span of six years of Ramanujan's life, from 1914 when he worked as an accountant in Madras till his death in 1920.
Narrated from his mentor G.H. Hardy's point of view, in a non-linear fashion, the film, encapsulates Ramanujan's struggle from his modest upbringing in India, all the way up to Trinity College at Cambridge, where Hardy arranges for Ramanujan to work with him at Trinity, unaware that he is leaving behind his wife Janaki and an overbearing mother.
Writer-director Matthew Brown's script is fraught with numbers and miracles. Formulaic in nature, the plot, characterisation and emotional manipulation is the highlight of the film. But ultimately it is about the prodigy's love for mathematics and his two relationships, with his wife and his association with his mentor that forms the crux of the tale.
The narrative gets impulsive, with a mumbo-jumbo of numerical analyses which are unabashedly brought to the fore. When Hardy insists on having proofs of the theories, and is unwilling to publish Ramanujan's findings which were derived purely by intuition, you feel that he is trying to tame the genius and subjugate him.
When Hardy, an atheist, asks where Ramanujan gets his formulae, particularly since he is unable to show the process, the prodigy replies, that his God informs him while he is sleeping or praying. And his insistence only infuriates the genius.
The film belongs to Dev Patel. He steals the show as S. Ramanujan. He convincingly makes us believe that he really is the mathematician by being engrossed and immersing himself in numbers. He emotes effortlessly, especially when he pines for his wife, faces racial discrimination or is furious with his mentor when he is forced to present proofs for his theories.
Devika Bhise is a pleasant surprise. She complements Dev as his wife Janaki. She delivers an equally robust performance, especially expressing how she pines for him during their long separation. Though this is not a love-story, their onscreen chemistry is palpable. You feel sorry for both of them.
Arundhati Nag as Ramanujan's mother is equally brilliant.
Jeremy Irons in a straight laced role as G.H. Hardy is effective. To his credit, he brings energy and nuance to a character only thinly sketched in. He strains himself trying to overcome skeptics while helping Ramanujan reach his full potential while he is in Britain.
The same goes for Toby Jones as Littlewood and Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell, trying to be subtle in a sensitive but fairly predictable performance that's probably because of the stereotyped nature of the characters they portray.
Visually, the film is simple and realistic. The costumes by Ann Maskrey complement production designer Luciana Arrighi's sets, where they manage to create the era to perfection.
Cinematographer Larry Smith's frames are atmospheric, but nothing exceptional. He captures the locales in India and Cambridge with equal fervour.
The background score by Coby Brown has a faint blend of Indian and Western music. The visuals are brought to life by J.C. Bond's fine edits.
The film is sensitively and skilfully handled and is definitely worth a watch.