April 11 2016
How many great Indian heroes are there in the popular western imagination…?
APART from Mahatma Gandhi and some familiar sporting figures perhaps (Sachin Tendulkar, Kapil Dev, and Vijay Amitraj,) and authors…(the usual suspects), it’s hard to name anyone who might have a wide popular resonance outside India and especially in the US…
So, much credit should go the way of first time writer-director Matt Brown and Warner Brothers for backing a film about an Indian mathematician, the incomparable Srinavasa Ramanujan, played by Dev Patel in “The Man Who Knew Infinity” – out on release from April 8 in the UK.
On paper, it does look a tricky proposition and while the backing star cast certainly helps to give it weight and gravitas (in Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry) these are far from a guarantee that the film is any good.
It is an amazing story – a barely educated, poverty-stricken man from South India, defies convention to produce some of the most complex mathematical work ever undertaken and were it not for other men who believed in Ramanujan, we would all be much the poorer.
On a personal level, Dev Patel smashes it. Whether that’s because it’s Dev Patel and not another equally adept actor, you will have to judge for yourself. But this is a finely modulated performance and he does inhabit this real enigma of a man and a mathematician beautifully and effectively. Even from the trailer, where he says “I have nothing – do you know what I’ve given up to be here” – a young wife, mother, traditional beliefs….
Not easy probably for someone who is confident and as poised as Patel.
From accounts, Ramanujan was a quiet, fastidious man – shy, introverted and deeply religious.
Even coming to Cambridge in 1914 as war descended on Europe would have been a massive deal. It proved to be just so.
His Brahmin mother was not happy – it’s easy to forget that once Brahmins left the motherland, they ceased to be in their own eyes – and while the film does not dwell on it (there is just one line about it) – they consider themselves to be ‘polluted’ and ‘contaminated’ when they are in an environment they cannot control.
Ramanujan put aside all that and remained true to his own beliefs – he continued to practise as a Brahmin.
That meant being vegetarian in Britain at a time when there was simply no idea of that.
In our video interview with Patel (see below), he talks about Ramanujan’s ‘great nobility of soul’.
It was a sense of calling and duty that propelled him forward – ‘an equation has no meaning for me unless it expresses a thought of God’.
His relationship with the Cambridge mathematician GH Hardy (Irons) is at the core of this production.
He too, much like Ramanujan, was a man and product of his times, and only came quite late on to appreciate what Ramanujan had done for him.
Most historical accounts tend to focus on Hardy as the man who introduced Ramanujan to the West and while that is blandly true, this film shows that the two men were deeply connected through their ‘art’.
In the end, and on this spectrum of the subject, their maths was an art and the two were artists in a form of rather unique collaboration.
Some critics have been sniffy – yes, it is slightly sentimental, and does come across very much as championing the underdog, but that is no crime.
In the continuing conversation between Britain and her former colonies, this deserves to be seen and it is the sort of film that will inspire those with a dream and seemingly many obstacles before them, to continue to strive and believe – for that is what, in the end, gave us a man whose theories and art helped us to all better understand the world we inhabit. (Sailesh Ram)
ACV rating: **** (out of five)
Main pic: GH Hardy (Jeremy Irons) and Srinavasa Ramanujan (Dev Patel) in Trinity College, Cambridge University
‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ is out on general release now in the UK
Interview Dev Patel