Xavier Das wholeheartedly recommends this simple sweet tale of genius and clash of cultures
The name Ramanujan is one we’ve all encountered on our journey through school. A genius at mathematics. A true prodigy. A manifestation of the scientific bent of India that our present dispensation so likes to boast of (albeit poorly and often wrongly).
But what do we really know of the genius that was Srinivasa Ramanujan? Not much in all likelihood.
Like so many of India’s heroes, Ramanujan’s greatness has been distilled to the effect that many of our countrymen would not make it beyond the word ‘Mathematics’ if asked to pen an essay on the legend. We know no specifics of his achievements. Just Math, that oh so odious and terrible subject. We appreciate his genius. Or, at least, we think we do. And, in that quick pill that’s so easy to swallow, we find some semblance of national pride, some inspiration and the answer to a question on a general knowledge quiz in class 5.
But we don’t really know. And without knowing the story – the backward beginnings, the struggle for recognition, the journey of a sickly boy across an ocean, the racism he encountered and ultimately the friendships that helped – any inspiration we draw is farce (though your general knowledge answer would still, in all likelihood, be correct.)
That is where ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ comes in. In just under 2 hours, the movie, based on the book by Robert Kanigel, lifts the lid on Ramanujan’s life, helping us, the under-informed-know-it-alls, truly understand the man who found mention in our banter as ‘that math guy’.
The film is certainly a tribute, and one made all the more beautiful by the fact that the story entwines from people around the globe. In times of vicious polarisation globally, when outsiders are viewed with suspicion, people from around the globe have come together to tell the story of a poor Tamil mathematician, is heart warming.
Directed by Larry Smith, the last cinematographer to work with the legendary Stanley Kubrick, the story is told beautifully, albeit in a simple traditional and linear way. There are no manic jumps forwards or backwards to induce suspense or introduce plot twists.
The narrative is straight-forward – the opportunity of a genius to meet some of the best mathematical minds in Cambridge, his relationship with his mentor, his mother, his wife and tragic early death. While we know Ramanujan for his mathematical genius, this is the story of the mathematician himself. That being said, the subject of mathematics is not treated with flippancy either.
The movie’s two associate producers are young and highly decorated mathematicians themselves – one of Indian origin based in Canada and the other a Japanese-American. Having the duo on board the ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ team ensured the subject that Ramanujan so dearly treasured is treated with the sanctity it deserves, while still making sense to a lay audience.
And while large parts of the storyline are genuinely harrowing, the cinematography by Larry Smith is beautiful. Kumbakonam and Chennai as also far off Cambridge (and Oxford) look sweepingly picturesque.
Slow steady shots, like paintings and portraits, reminiscent of Vermeer paintings sometimes, grand portraits at others, zoom leisurely over oceans creating wonderful atmospheric panoramic views, or tight, cosy frames in the lamp-lit home of Ramanujam, inside the imposing chambers of the Cambridge professors and inside the tents of the injured and dying in the First World War.
The haunting scores of Coby Brown, meanwhile, perfectly accentuate the highs, lows, disappointments and triumphs in the story. This is important, because like Ramanujan himself, the story is nothing if not mercurial – swaying violently from hope to despair, from success to self-doubt and triumph to tragedy, sans melodrama.
The acting is superb – Jeremy Irons, who plays Ramanujan’s mentor, sets an incredibly high bar. While the rest don’t quite reach there, they still do an admirable job supporting him with their own exceptionally sensitive portrayal of characters, all of whom are highly nuanced.
However, while we are left to revel in Ramanujan’s achievements, it is impossible to ignore the roles caste and religion play in the film. This is critically important because in a country that prides itself in its scientific bent of mind it is a reminder of how the deadweight of superstition and dogma shackles progress.
In times where the potential of Rohit Vemulas across the country are snuffed out by narrow-minded ‘Brahmanism’, Ramanujan’s story reminds us of the pitfalls of religion, caste and blind faith. For it is this that almost robbed the world of Ramanujan – because despite his brilliance, the poor boy, under-nourished, ill of health, with no connections to boast of, wasn’t invited into the company of his Indian peers. That the best that was bestowed upon him was a recommendation for a lowly clerical job.
Luckily, while men of faith in India ignored logical conclusions, men of logic, seated across the ocean in England, took a leap of faith that resulted in Ramanujan finding the support, guidance and, ultimately, the place he deserved so greatly in the annals of mathematics to become a lore and legend.