The Man Who Knew Infinity Barely Understands Its Remarkable Real-Life Subject

The film lacks in curiosity and the joy of discovery, which is what draws us to remarkable mathematicians like S. Ramanujan in the first place.

A still from the film The Man Who Knew Infinity.

A still from the film The Man Who Knew Infinity.

Sylvia Nasar’s book A Beautiful Mind, which chronicles the life of mathematician John Nash (his talent for numbers, his struggles with schizophrenia), begins with Harvard professor George Mackey paying a visit to Nash in a hospital. Nasar writes about that meeting thus, ‘“How could you,” began Mackey, “how could you, a mathematician, a man devoted to reason and logical proof… how could you believe that extraterrestrials are sending you messages? How could you believe that you are being recruited by aliens from outer space to save the world?” (…) “Because,” Nash said, “the ideas I had about supernatural beings came to me the same way that my mathematical ideas did. So I took them seriously.”’

The Man Who Knew Infinity,the movie based on the life of Indian mathematician S. Ramanujan, has a similar moment. G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), a mathematics professor in Trinity College, has called Ramanujan (Dev Patel) to college so that he can help publish his mathematical findings. The trouble is Ramanujan has the results; he just can’t prove them. One day, Hardy asks Ramanujan, “How did you know that theorem?” He replies, “It just came to me.” In a different scene, Hardy poses a similar question to Ramanujan, whose answer remains practically unchanged, “I don’t know. I just do.”

Indeed, men of numbers, especially those who can play with numbers, remain a mystery to us. Part of our curiosity about mathematicians has to do with the nature of the subject itself: one that’s abstract, elusive, even bipolar, welcoming a select few, snubbing the rest. And it’s this curiosity, this joy of finding something new in the familiar, that’s most lacking in The Man Who Knew Infinity.

The film opens in Madras of 1914, where young Ramanujan, working as a clerk, has recently got married and is looking to find an outlet for his mathematical ambition. These portions of the film — with stilted dialogues, one-note acting, and predictable plot points — prime us for a movie that keeps achieving different levels of mediocrity. To begin with, the film’s characters, especially Ramanujan, his wife and his mother, talk to each other in English nearly all the time, in a strange, awkward accent (imagined by the makers) that sounds fake and unconvincing. Why not have them talk in Tamil? In a bid to make the film more universal, more palatable to a majority of audiences (thus increasing the chance of its box-office success) director Matthew Brown disconnects the characters from their own film. Lines such as “Hi, I’m Ramanujan”, “We’re Brahmins, we’re forbidden to cross the sea” just don’t work, and keep drawing attention to the fact that a British filmmaker is trying to appropriate, even distort, an Indian story. Moreover, language in pre-Independence era was used to not just communicate but also differentiate, at times, subjugate — a fact this film doesn’t care about. In the India of The Man Who Knew Infinity, Indians and Britishers sound the same; the original differences between their culture and mannerisms are equalised by a filmmaker who paints them with the same brush.

But there’s something else too in this movie that is a constant source of concern – throughout the film, we never get to know Ramanujan, either the man or the mathematician. Just like A Beautiful Mind, The Man Who Knew Infinity has been adapted from a book that is a biographical account of a famed mathematician. But unlike the former (which blended fact and fiction to approximate a life of professional highs and personal lows), the latter barely seems to strive to understand its protagonist. It’s also surprising that the film never really reaches the depths of its emotional core — that is, understanding the fact that Ramanujan’s story is that of a man whose excellence was not just good enough for his own country, who struggled for dignity and freedom, but for the world; and his genius, uncontrolled and unexplained, functioned in the way genius often works — an act that exists for its own sake, that charts its own path, not by design but by destiny.

But The Man Who Knew Infinity is oblivious to these truths. In fact, it tries to differentiate between Ramanujan and Hardy, himself a mathematician of some repute, by explaining the former’s brilliance and attributing it to his faith (“…an equation means nothing to me unless it expresses the thought of god.”) in a scene that’s heartfelt, but ultimately vague, and says nearly nothing of value about its main characters or the film.

For the most of its runtime, The Man Who Knew Infinity, thanks to lazy writing and bad acting — Irons delivers a convincing performance but Patel fails to carry the film — goes through the motions and seems disinterested, making you wonder about this futile attempt. At one point, in the film’s second half, Ramanujan, slogging through mathematical theorems in his room in Trinity College, sees flakes of snow falling outside his window. For a man from Madras, who has never seen snowfall in his life, this, for him, is a moment of discovery. He steps outside his room, extends his hands, and allows the flakes to rest on him. It’s one of the rare moments in the film, where it stops and wonders, watches and admires. And it’s a pity that that small scene in a film like The Man Who Knew Infinity is a rarity. It’s a pity that a film on Ramanujan, the man who found things most couldn’t even begin to think about, is so devoid of the joys of discovery.

  • wandsword

    Not all mathematicians are driven by the “joys of discovery”, and to some it’s just a trivial matter. Trust me.

    Here’s a review I read the other day, by a mathematician himself.