When I was looking through the 59th San Francisco International Film Festival guide online, I came across a screening for the film that I had heard about, The Man Who Knew Infinity, described here:
“For writer-director Matthew Brown, it has been a long, twisting road bringing â€śThe Man Who Knew Infinity,â€ť a drama based on the short life of mathematician Srinavasa Ramanujan and his friendship with a Cambridge professor, to the screen.
In 2004, he read Robert Kanigelâ€™s biography of Ramanujan, an impoverished autodidact from Madras, India, who was invited to work on his theories at Cambridge in the early years of the 20th century. Brown wrote the first draft of his screenplay more than 10 years ago and, as he started pitching it around, he realized just what a challenge heâ€™d placed before himself.
â€śThis has been about as hard as it could possibly be to get financed,â€ť he says. â€śIt doesnâ€™t fit into any of the Hollywood models. Indian mathematician at the turn of the century. Itâ€™s really a love story between the two men. He had to leave his wife, obviously, and misses her terribly, but really the story of the friendship is the central relationship. Itâ€™s mathematicians. Itâ€™s an Indian man, a period film. Itâ€™s basically every strike â€” youâ€™ve struck out five times. Youâ€™re kicked right out of the executiveâ€™s office.â€ť”
I had heard ofÂ Ramanujan and his story, but didn’t really know that much about him. Then again, the only historic mathematician I know is probably Newton (and he’s probably known way more for physics).
Originally, I think I had read that actor Dev Patel who playsÂ Ramunujan (best known for the surprise hit Slumdog Millionaire) was going to be in attendance for the panel discussion, but after the screening, I was disappointed to find out that he wasn’t, but a large panel including the Director Matt Brown, composer Coby Brown, actor Stephen Fry, actress Devika Bhise (who playsÂ Ramunujan’s wife), producer Ed Pressman, mathematicians Manjul Bhargava, Ken Ono, and Edward Frenkel,Â book writer Robert Kanigel (which the film is based on, of the same title).Â You can watch the panel discussion in this YouTube video I took:
What struck me about the biopic was the period piece reminds us of the racism thatÂ Ramunujan faced as an Indian visiting Great Britain during the start of World War I. Today, we think of Indians, or at least Indian Americans, stereotypically as very intelligent and probably good at math, science and spelling. But that was definitely not the case whenÂ Ramunujan arrived in Cambridge, England and seen as intellectually inferior due to his race and I’m sure that India was part of the British Empire at the time didn’t help things either. As the directo said in the panel discussion, “talent can be found anywhere,” which is relevant to today’s discussion of diversity, especially in Silicon Valley and the tech community.
Overall, I enjoyed the film and learning the story of Ramunujan. The film itself reminds me very much of a combination of A Beautiful Mind and Good Will Hunting, but somehow not as polished. Also, if you liked The Theory of Everything orÂ The Imitation Game, I’m sure you’ll enjoy the film as well. I thought actor Dev Patel did a good job and was pleasantly surprised to see Jeremy Irons portrayÂ Ramunujan’s mentor,Â G.H. Hardy, terrifically.
However, I didn’t think the film really went into Ramunujan’s work or its implications as deeply as I thought it should – even if the film is for the general public. Then again, some of Â Ramunujan’s work is and its implications are only beginning to be understood. I knew thatÂ Ramunujan had stayed in England for a while, but learned only afterwards reading online that he stayed for five years.Â And learning that, I wondered how being away from his wife in India for so long was portrayed correctly or was more a Hollywood tale.
As of this writing, the film gets 67% on Rotten Tomatoes. The film opened in New York, San Francisco and Los Angeles the weekend of Friday, April 29th and I assume will be rolled out to a broader audience over time.
I’m ashamed to say, but I think this is the first time I’ve attended a film screening at San Francisco International Film Festival – not sure why, though I don’t live in San Francisco but do make it to the city, usually on weekends, and I’ve attended CAAMFest many, many times. The screening took place in the beautiful and historic Castro Theater.