As an actor, Vidya Balan is like a storm. One so strong that she ends up pummelling—and in the case of this film, dwarfing—everyone around her. It’s appropriate, then, that she’s fronting Anu Menon’s Shakuntala Devi biopic, also about a woman who reigned like a thunderstorm, lived unapologetically and on her own terms, and ended up confronting and resolving the consequences. Not only did she not get swayed by societal norms, she actively advocated against them, sometimes going a bit too far for her own good.

Shakuntala Devi starts off in template-biopic fashion, efficiently establishing the young girl’s mind-boggling ability to solve complicated mathematical problems. In what may come as a surprise to the generations of Indians who bought her many books on puzzles and numbers, the film also outlines the childhood neglect and exploitation Shakuntala faced from her father. She grows up to despise both her parents, but more her mother, for being subservient to her husband. It’s an important marker that later defines the relationship she herself has with her daughter and the conflict she faces between being the perfect parent and wanting to globetrot and enjoy her own success.

The film’s first half is breezy, funny, standard fare, but there’s a joy in watching Menon treat her protagonist the same way male geniuses have been portrayed on screen for decades. This is when the film charts out Shakuntala’s rise as a celebrity in London, where she hops from one sold-out event to another packed performance, tripping on her own success, making snazzy jokes where she laughs the loudest. She’s a rockstar in the guise of a scientist, an interesting shift from the stereotypes one associates with ‘scientist characters’. Her ultimate high? The look of bewilderment on white faces and the question that shadows her all the time: how do you do it?
While it’s a delight to watch Vidya Balan own and electrify the stage, this is also when you begin to feel impatient as the film tries to find a point of conflict. Until the film’s first hour is over, there isn’t any real obstacle in Shakuntala’s journey, barring a couple of racist rejections. Her ascent from obscurity to ubiquity almost feels preordained in the absence of any real depiction of struggle. Even if it was that way in real life, a conflict here would’ve put her success in perspective, giving her a steadier graph.

The film picks up when it begins to examine the pitfalls of fame and more importantly, explores what happens when it seeps into the lives of those who were born into it but grew up not wanting it. Shakuntala Devi explodes and rages and gets under the skin of a messy daughter-mother relationship, a dynamic left pitifully unexplored in much of Hindi cinema (the father-son relationship being so much more palatable).