Tuesday, May 03, 2016

The Man Who Knew Infinity -- a brave film on the life of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan

As the scenes from the Matt Brown-directed "The Man Who Knew Infinity" about the life of mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan unfold, the first thought that comes to mind is how sad it is that no one from India made a film on his life. Of course, it is a difficult task to make a film on a mathematician which does not promise much dramatic flavour that would hold the attention of the viewer.
It would be futile to argue whether Dev Patel has some faint resemblance to Ramanujan. It would be foolish to expect a satisfactory solution to that. But we need to examine Patel's portrayal of Ramanujan. There seem to be some problems here but these are problems that have haunted British and American film-makers for as long as they have been making films. The stereotypical Easterner/Indian/Arab emerges. In the case of Ramanujan too it turns out to be the same. Patel follows the director's and writer's portrait of Ramanujan. Ramanujan the man never really emerges.
The film is based on Robert Kanigel's biography of Ramanujan, titled "The Man Who Knew Infinity", and it seems that even Kanigel could not get the Indian mathematician inside out. It is an outside-in portrayal. That is the best a foreigner can do. It is unfortunate that no one in Tamil Nadu had the nerve and the imagination to write a flesh-and-blood account of Ramanujan's life, his fantasies, his foibles, his grit and his genius. Was he a cheerful person? Was he an introvert? Was he a religious person outwardly? We simply do not know. It is then futile to blame Kanigel or Brown for not getting the man right.
The movie succeeds because it shows the internal politics at the University of Cambridge, with quite a bit of racism thrown in as well. But G.H.Hardy, played wonderfully by Jeremy Irons, is the feisty liberal and atheist in a university that is mainly conservative and Christian and white. As the First World War breaks out, Bertrand Russell, played by Jeremy Northam, who opposes the war, is thrown out of the university. Littlewood, Hardy's collaborator, goes to the war as ballistic expert. Ramanujan is caught in this social and political melee.
The general reader/viewer's fascination with Ramanujan, as with all geniuses, is his life more than his work because a majority of us cannot ever hope to even have a faint idea of his mathematics. So, the film rightly focuses on the genera battle of wits between Hardy and Ramanujan. Hardy demands that Ramanujan should write down the proofs of all his equations. There is a point in the film where Ramanujan bursts out saying that he cannot provide the proofs because he does not know how to do it. But he has no doubt whatsoever that his equations are true. Hardy cajoles, scolds and reprimands Ramanujan to learn to write the proofs. And Ramanujan manages to do it.
There is a certain cussedness if not churlishness in Ramanujan because he is aware that the work he is doing is important and he is looking for the man who understands the importance of the work he is doing. In the movie, Ramanujan tells Hardy that he has come all the way to England to get his work published and not to learn to write proofs of his equations! Hardy and Littlewood, and the other mathematicians in Cambridge, come round to the view that his work is merit-worthy. After much resistance and after much pleading and fighting by Hardy, Ramanujan is made the Fellow of Royal Society.
The Hardy-Ramanujan friendship is a wonderful phenomenon. Hardy, an atheist, Ramanujan, a blind believer in God. They are not distracted by their beliefs. What holds them together is mathematics. Hardy tells Ramanujan that one of his equations is wrong, and Ramanujan finds it hard to swallow!
Jeremy Irons does a lovely portrayal of Hardy, and perhaps should get the Oscar for the Best Supporting Actor in 2017. Patel had a difficult role to play. That it is not fully convincing is not his fault. We do not know Ramanujan's character fully, and there is nothing much that Patel could do about it.
This is not a movie that recommends itself because of its cinematic quality, though there is quite a bit of it here, but it holds the attention of the viewer because of the atmospherics at the University of Cambridge and its dons.

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