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A still from ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’
A still from ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’

Film review: The Man Who Knew Infinity

While moving, this biopic of genius mathematician S. Ramanujan is not as compelling as his real life story

Writer-director Matthew Brown’s adaption of Robert Kanigel’s book The Man Who Knew Infinity is a timid and reverential representation that skims over the complex and sad story of genius mathematician S. Ramanujan, who died at age 32. The story is recounted from the point of view of English mathematician and Ramanujan’s (Dev Patel) mentor at Cambridge, G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) who describes their brief interaction as “the one romantic incident in my life".

Ramanujan leaves behind his simple life and new bride, Janaki (Devika Bhise), in Madras to journey over the seas to pursue his passion for numbers. An autodidact, he says these equations and proofs come to him via his god. His claims and colour evoke anger, overt racism and expose the deep-rooted prejudice in England of the early 1900s. Hardy, an atheist, also does little to understand Ramanujan, his sole interest seemingly being intellectual collaboration.

Brown is unable to steer clear of the stereotypical exotic portrayal of Ramanujan’s life in Madras, and elephants, cows, temples and colourful Kanjeevaram saris fill the screen. Stephen Fry pops up as Sir Francis Spring, who facilitates Ramanujan’s introduction to Hardy.

The narrative is intrinsically poignant—a man uprooted at a young age, leaving his orthodox home in 1914 to live alone in a foreign land where a Brahmin will struggle to find pure vegetarian food. His loneliness is aggravated by the breaking of World War I, the onset of a fatal illness and the inability to bring his wife over to England.

Brown takes few chances. This is a steady biopic that plays by the numbers. It dwells a little too much on Ramanujan and Janaki’s love story and not enough on the mathematics. We hardly get a sense of anything meaningful in Ramanujan’s life—neither the numbers and equations nor his isolation and fears, and certainly not his relationship with Hardy. What does work is the portrayal of Cambridge politics, led by Irons and played out by a solid British supporting cast, which includes Toby Jones as J.E. Littlewood and Jeremy Northam as Bertrand Russell.

I was certainly sceptical of Dev Patel, with his exaggerated Indian accent, pulling off an early 20th century Tam Brahm character, but within the very British context of the film, he takes on a challenging role with requisite restraint (even though his eyeballs dart around dizzyingly). You do feel for Ramanujan when Hardy does not bother to understand his protégé’s culture, especially his food habits and family life. Hardy’s fascination with Ramanujan is captured in the way Irons is unable to make eye contact with Patel during the most heightened moments—greetings and goodbyes.

The Man Who Knew Infinity is moving, but not as compelling as the real life story of the genius it celebrates. The definitive film on Ramanujan remains to be made; one that will have the heft of The Imitation Game or A Beautiful Mind; one that will sidestep the formulaic screenplay and exotica, but won’t shy away from solving equations.

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