At first glance The Man Who Knew Infinity would seem an unlikely movie dead on arrival. The very thought of making a biopic about an advanced Indian mathematician whose deep calculations are still being utilized today to calculate black holes doesn’t strike me as a topic that would make the masses rush to the theater, form lines, and eagerly await the opening credits.
But, surprise, surprise, this movie takes such a topic and dresses it in a little Merchant-Ivory and some new age metaphysics. In doing so, The Man Who Knew Infinity manages to create a rather masterful and even suspenseful drama of a man who had “all this in” (as he continues to mention throughout the picture), all these calculations. Srinivasa Ramanujian, a native of Madras, India, had been creating and annotating in notebooks for his own viewing — calculations that were literally begging to be revealed upon the world. Continuously rejected for employment in his own country due to the nation being run by severe Englishmen who looked at Indians as little more than savages, he lands a job as a bookkeeper. His ability to work without an abacus lands him in the eye of his supervisors who see great potential in him. Just as he is starting to form a family with his wife Janaki, Ramanujan finds himself on his way to London — and not just London, but Cambridge — to work under the tutelage of mathematician G. H. Hardy and publish his works.
Ramanujan believes the publishing thing is a cut-and-dry event that would have him back in India in no time. Hardy, while seeing his level of genius, also needs for Ramanujan to form proofs that his calculations work as he’s created them. Ramanujan for a while comes across as a man with an almost insufferable ego — he “sees” the calculations (which land him on the wrong side of a professor with a fragile ego who becomes a thorn on his side. However, the proofs have to materialize; otherwise, even when these calculations can be as revolutionary as stated, they’ll mean little to the math world.
This is a great study in contrasts of characters. Dev Patel as Ramanujan may be infused with an entitlement, but he eventually reveals to Hardy, his polar opposite, that he is attuned to an inner voice, the voice of the gods, and that they come to him in visions holding these pristine calculations in tow for him to materialize onto paper. Hardy, a confirmed atheist, resists for the longest (and Jeremy Irons is his usual good in portraying a stern father-teacher-turned friend). He can’t believe in Ramanujan’s perspective . . . but who is he to deny it?
The Man Who Knew Infinity manages to also expose the rather casual racism that Europeans have had towards people deemed of “an inferior race”. Ramanujan’s position at Cambridge shields him from going to war in 1914 when the story is set and this engenders some animosity from those who are fighting and see him with contempt. Professors sneer at him for being foreign and despite his discoveries deny him a place among the elite. He gets beat up, badly, at one point, and no one notices — again, because he’s “brown”. In short, London becomes more and more an alien place for Ramanujan to exist and it starts to affect his physical and mental health.
The Man Who Knew Infinity is a good debut picture by its director, Matt Brown, a solid biopic that manages to engross and involve you in the plight of this one extraordinary man who, it seems, came for one purpose only — to leave his calculations for future generations. That it’s been playing for a solid two months now speaks volumes to the type of movies that the public wants to see instead of the popcorn garbage that pollutes multiplexes in late spring. This is the kind of picture that was popular in the times of old Hollywood and I for one am glad that it’s become as successful. I would have wanted that the actor slated to play Ramanujan, R. Madhavan, would have remained as the prime choice, but Dev Patel is excellent in a role that places him onscreen for the entire picture. Devhika Bise, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry, and Jeremy Northam are very good in their respective roles.