Before the release of Ramanujan, the eponymous commercial Tamil film on the renowned ‘mathematical genius’ — we use the term in its true sense here, as it is also a fact that most of us tend to slap this description on any one who can do additions involving any two three-figure numbers without the aid of a calculator — there was scepticism whether the movie, when doing justice to his science, will miss out on the essence of the man, or while focusing on his domestic side will lose sight of his undoubted scientific brilliance. But the director seems to have smartly gone for the golden mean, by disappointing both the sides in equal measure. The film has neither Ramanujan nor science, but a couple of good songs, which the film could have practically done without.
But without belittling what is indeed an earnest idea to highlight on celluloid a true whiz of this country, it should be said science and Tamil films don’t mix well. To be precise, all known and established laws of science stop working within the matrix of a Tamil movie script. Sample this from that classic Narasimha: The hero, a nonchalant and consummate James Bond-type agent, is on a killing spree. This is though as part of a one-man mission so secret that he himself seems unaware of it. But as audience even if we were told that Narasimha’s mission was to trace the elusive God particle, we would not have batted an eyelid. Because in this film that would have been <I>actually<P> believable.
In the film, the defence ministry honchos, who of course head the CBI, and of course handle local law and order issues, and also wear raincoats inside what seems like a well-concealed bunker, catch Narasimha. They want to ferret out the truth from him. To get him speak, they use all the techniques picked from the Guantanamo bay detention camp manual. Turns out that in their urgency, they laid their hands on the Guantanamo Bay official joke manual. Anyway, when they eventually try to give Narasimha shock treatment, by pointing an industrial estate-grade live wire on him, the inevitable happens —- they realise that there is load-shedding in the area. No seriously, the transformer explodes unable to withstand Narasimha’s shock and Tamil Nadu slips into a power crisis that it is still to recover from. Cue: Rousing music (by playing fortissimo all the instruments known to mankind). (Needless to say, the man who played the role of Narasimha, Vijayakanth stands a chance of becoming the Chief Minister of this State when it goes to polls in two years time).
After Narasimha, most Tamil viewers wouldn’t mind even if Ramanujan were shown solving sums from R D Sharma. But the problem with Ramanujan is that it is underwhelming, even while granting that wizardry in math doesn’t really lend itself to re-creation on screen. Also, in a commercial film format, they would have needed to show something like Ramanujan stopping a villainous character from his malcontent ways through the adroit and timely use of, I don’t know, Pauli’s exclusion principle.
In a film that is a bio-pic of sorts, you pick the hero either for his acting ability or for his verisimilitude in looks to the character he plays. In Ramanujan, it’s neither. They seem to have chosen the hero for the scientific reason that he happens to be Gemini Ganesan’s grandson.
Still, the team of Ramanujan can be cut some slack for attempting a subject that very few are giving a shot at in school itself. From a common man’s point of view, the problem with math in schools is that it seems interesting and agreeable as long it is just about numbers. But around 8th standard, math surreptitiously attains puberty, and in a fit of hormonal rush gets on an affair with algebra (algebra isn’t math; it is essentially hide and seek with the English letters x, y, z). As time goes by, not just algebra, math is taken captive by even more wicked suitors in the form of trigonometry, calculus. In the face of such irrational infidelity, even the most committed lover would give up.
Let us face it, math at higher levels is only for sincere and scientific-minded persons who have dedicated themselves to the academic life of travelling to strange conferences at touristy locations on institutional expense. Otherwise, for the common person, high-end math is as helpful as a pair of roller-skates for a sharp-toothed shark.
Here in journalism, we don’t generally need math. But occasionally we may have to use them, like in this instance: Once a newspaper published a story saying that one-half of the MPs in Parliament were crooks. The government took great exception to that and demanded an apology. The newspaper responded the next day with a retraction that read: ‘One-half of the MPs are not crooks’.
Ramanujan would have approved of it. But, to be sure, Narasimha would have nuked Parliament.