The man who knew infinity, with love

This no typical Hollywood portrayal with licence taken to “sell” the story. The script, written by director Matt Brown based on the biography by Robert Kanigel, instead offers fodder for those who like meat in their movies.

Dev Patel, once the boy ingénue in Slumdog Millionaire and the frantic boy-man in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, has come to his own on screen with this portrayal of mathematician Srivanasa Ramanujan.

His emphatic portrayal of a un-schooled genius from then Madras, having the temerity to write to Cambridge professor G.H. Hardy on a math formula is believable. He ably reveals the depth of Srivanasa’s character, from his staunch cultural practices and beliefs (being a Brahmin and what vegetarianism means) to his unswavering conviction that the formulae are from god, in particular Namagiri.

Math was for him about writing down “the thoughts of God”. History showed that Srivanasa was a pure mathematician with an intuitive genius.

Dev’s boyish yet muscular portrayal sits well next to the inimitable Jeremy Irons as Prof Hardy. Irons gives a subtle but compelling portrayal of this aloof, atheist professor whose religion is mathematics. He demands proof of Srivanasa’s formulae, and the rigorous training that goes with such a discipline. In the end, he is touched by Srivanasa’s brilliance, and death, leaving cinemagoers moved as well.

While the script pays no heed to the historical fact that Hardy was also a homosexual, what does shine in this movie is the love Srivanasa and Hardy both have for maths — it is almost tangible.

Unlike The Theory of Everything or A Beautiful Mind, or even Good Will Hunting — the nearest movies I can think to this kind of cerebral biopic – The Man Who Knew Infinity shows respect for mathematics itself. Production notes state that there were two math consultants on board – Ken Ono and Manjul Bhargava.

Unfortunately, non-maths people (most cinemagoers) don’t really know how significant is Srivanasa’s theories until the end of the movie, when it is revealed that his “Lost Notebook” has theorems still being used today like in examining black holes.

Srivanasa’s life has been well documented in television, in theatre as well the Indian movie, Ramanujan, in 2014.

Devika Bhise and Dev Patel

Devika Bhise and Dev Patel

He was born in 1887 in then Madras to a poor Brahmin family. From young, his only interest was maths, and for lack of paper, he would scribble all over the temple walls. He didn’t do university but discovered amazing theorems. In 1913, he wrote to Prof Hardy a letter that changed his life. In it, he said he was a clerk in the Accounts Department of the Port Trust of Madras and went on to show some of his maths theories.

So, he went to Cambridge, leaving behind his young wife (Devika Bhise ) and mother despite being admonished that “Brahmins don’t cross the waters”.

The movie shows not just his obsessive love for maths, but also his need to get back home, with his wife, giving a human edge to his oft-times delirious number-swirling madness.

Director Brown has also given the context of this Indian’s arrival in England, during World War I, with even a Zeppelin over Trinity College and its subsequent aftermath.  He showed the Indian also had to deal with people’s lack of understanding of other cultures.

Examples are Srinivasa’s vegetarian diet, which seemed unheard of at the college canteen then, the racisim he faced and the other professors’ snobbery. It’s a good thing Hardy had the support of fellow mathematician J.E. Littlewood (Toby Jones) which lent some wittiness in script and levity to the narrative.

But it’s the maths that takes your breath away. One scene shows  Srivanasa with a professor called MacMahon challenging him to a battle of arithmetics ( without computers, of course since it was 1914). It is like watching a math quiz show.

It seems the incident was true to history, as too the other maths exercises he did.  The Indian genius made a name for his work on elliptic functions, continued fractions, and infinite series.  The movie doesn’t dwell on Srinivasa’s lingering death in Madras due to tuberculosis, at the age of 32.

Director Brown instead emphasises the genius’ achievements including Hardy’s battle to get him elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society and Fellow of Trinity College. A moving scene was when  Hardy says that Srinivasa’s work shows “we are merely explorers of infinity, in the pursuit of perfection”. Just like Srinivasa’s belief in Namagiri, perhaps.

Getting lost in numbers or even your daily work can be akin to a spiritual feeling. The Man Who Knew Infinity gives cinemagoers an inkling of such profound love.

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