Biographical films, or “bioflicks” as they are often called, constitute a challenging genre for filmmakers — for a variety of reasons.
One major challenge is the difficulty of avoiding the extremes of hagiography and exposé. The temptation of a bioflick maker — especially one who is very sympathetic to the subject of the story, or who knows his audience is — may be to understate or omit relevant but unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or exaggerate the character’s good qualities or actions. One thinks of many of the biographical films of sports stars, artists, and political leaders from the 1930s through the 1960s. Conversely, the filmmaker — especially one who is very hostile to his subject, or who know the audience is — may be tempted to exaggerate the unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or to understate or omit the character’s good qualities or actions. There are even cases in which the bioflick maker is sympathetic to the perceived flaws of the real character and is tempted to exaggerate or accentuate them, in an effort to convince the public that they aren’t really flaws.
For these very reasons, bioflicks are often used as propaganda. Political regimes have long recognized the power of biographical film to advance their political causes, either by adoring portrayals of certain figures (such as key leaders of the regime, or historical figures whom the regime views favorably) or hateful portrayals of others (such as key opponents of the regime or historical figures whom the regime views unfavorably). For example, the Nazi Regime used bioflicks such as Hitler Youth Quex (1933) to convince people that the Party had among its supporters many noble young people.
The young Ramanujan apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers.
Another challenge is conveying what the subject of the film actually accomplished, together with its significance. This is relatively easy if the subject is (say) an artist: the filmmaker can inter alia show pictures of the artist’s work, while portraying the difficulty he or she faced in gaining acceptance (as is nicely done in Vincente Minelli’s acclaimed biography of Van Gogh, Lust for Life ). Again, if the subject is a composer, it is easy to make his major compositions part of the movie’s score (a successful instance is Richard Whorf’s popular biography of songwriter Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By ). It can be more difficult if the subject of the film is a scientist, or worse, a mathematician. One sees these challenges, and a creative response to them, in an excellent new bioflick, currently showing in art houses.
The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan was born in Erode, in the state of Madras, in 1887. He was of a Brahmin family (on his maternal side), but his parents were of limited means. His father was a clerk in a dress shop; his mother was a housewife. He survived smallpox when he was two, and grew up in a modest house in Kanchipuram (near Madras). The house is now a national museum in his honor. His mother — to whom he was very close, all his life — had three other children, all of whom died as infants. Raised as a devout Hindu, he kept the faith and Brahmin customs (especially vegetarianism) as an adult.
While Ramanujan went through secondary school and attended some college, he was largely self-taught. He mastered advanced trigonometry by age 13, discovering some higher-level theorems by himself. At age 14 he was able to pass in half the permitted time the high school math exit exam, and at age 15 he learned how to solve cubic equations. Then, by himself, he figured out how to solve quartic equations. A crucial year for him was his 16th, when a friend gave him a copy of A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, a compilation of 5,000 theorems by G.S. Carr. He apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers, a subject on which he published a paper some years later. He was graduated from Town Higher Secondary School that year (1904), winning the K. Ranganatha Rao prize for mathematics.
Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as an editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.
Unfortunately, although he was given a scholarship to attend college, he refused to focus on any studies besides mathematics, a refusal that resulted in his failure and dismissal. He subsequently left home and enrolled in another college, but again focused only on mathematics and was unable to get his bachelor’s degree. He left college in 1906 and worked as a poor independent scholar. In 1909 he married a very young girl, Srimathi Janaki — marrying very young was an Indian custom of the time — and after a bout of testicular disease, found work as a tutor helping students prepare for their mathematics exams.
In 1910, Ramanujan showed his work to V. Ramaswamy Aiyer, founder of the Indian Mathematical Society, who recognized his genius. Aiyer then sent him to R. Ramachandra Rao, secretary of the Indian Mathematical Society. Rao was initially skeptical but became convinced of Ramanujan’s originality and genius and provided both financial aid and institutional support so that Ramanujan could start publishing in the society’s journal. As the editor of the journal noted, Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as the editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.
In 1913, Rao and some other Indian mathematicians tried to help Ramanujan submit his work to British mathematicians. The first few who received the material were unimpressed, but G.H. Hardy was quite struck by the nine pages of results he received. He suspected that perhaps Ramanujan wasn’t the real author, but he felt that the results had to be true, because they were so intricate and plausible that nobody could have dreamt them up. Hardy showed them to his colleague and friend J. E. Littlewood, who was also amazed at Ramanujan’s genius. Hardy and others invited Ramanujan to come to Cambridge to work. The Indian was at first reluctant, because of his Brahmin belief that he shouldn’t leave his country, and apparently also because his mother opposed it. To the disappointment of Hardy, he obtained a research scholarship at the University of Madras.
Nevertheless, in 1914 — apparently after his mother had an epiphany — Ramanujan agreed to come to Cambridge. He started his studies under the tutelage of Hardy and Littlewood, who were able to look at his first three “notebooks.” (Ramanujan’s fourth major notebook — often called the “lost notebook” — was rediscovered in 1976.) While Hardy and Littlewood discovered some of the results and theorems were either wrong or had already been discovered, they immediately put Ramanujan in the same class as Leonhard Euler or Carl Jacobi. Hardy and Ramanujan had clashing styles, personalities, and cultural backgrounds — among other things, Hardy was an atheist and a stickler for detailed proofs, while Ramanujan was a Hindu and highly intuitionistic — but they collaborated successfully during the five years Ramanujan was at Cambridge.
One of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is his personal friend.”
In 1916, Ramanujan was awarded a Bachelor’s of Science “by research” (a degree subsequently renamed a Ph.D). In 1917 he was elected a Fellow of the London Mathematical Society, and in 1918 to the extremely prestigious Royal Society. At 31 years of age, he was one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society ever elected, and only the second Indian so honored. In that year also he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.
Ramanujan became ill in England, his sickness perhaps intensified by stress and (as the film suggests) by malnutrition. He was increasingly depressed and lonely, receiving few letters from his wife. The film identifies the cause as his mother’s jealous refusal to mail his wife’s letters to him. In 1918 he attempted suicide and spent time in a nursing home. He returned to Madras in 1919, and died the next year, barely 32 years of age. The cause was thought to be tuberculosis, though one doctor, examining his medical records, has opined that it was actually hepatic amoebiasis. His young widow lived to the age of 95.
The film centers on the period of his life shortly before the point, shortly before his death, at which the adult Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is gaining recognition through his work at Cambridge. As the film opens in 1913, we meet Ramanujan in the temple of the goddess Namagiri, writing an equation. (The film rightly portrays him as believing that mathematical truths are divinely crafted.) We see him desperately trying to provide for his pretty young wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) and his proud but rather domineering mother (Arundhati Nag). While the film focuses primarily on the relationship between Ramanujan and his work, it does skillfully present his loving but difficult marriage (he was in England, separated from his wife for nearly half his married life) as well as the strained relationship between his wife and mother.
The main part of the film, which ends with Ramanujan’s death in India, concerns his time in Britain, following with fair accuracy the real timeline of his life. We meet Hardy (Jeremy Irons) as he is given Ramanujan’s first letter and asked to comment on the handwritten pages. Irons plays Hardy as a crusty old bachelor, but also as a person who is obviously sincere in his desire to help Ramanujan. The film capably explores the relationship between the two, showing the transition from a mentorship to a friendship based on deep respect.
We watch as Hardy and Littlefield (Toby Jones) try to get the rest of the faculty — especially the racist Professor Howard (Anthony Calf) — to recognize Ramanujan’s worth. The film explores at length the antipathy that many of the British, even the faculty and students, felt toward Indians, culminating in a scene in which Ramanujan is beaten up by some soldiers — an episode that has a dramatic function, since racism against the immigrants from the colonies coming into England at the later part of WWI (to work in a labor market that had been decimated by the war) was exceedingly common — though this specific episode may have been invented. It also shows Ramanujan battling poor health in the face of a cold climate and lack of nutritious food. But Ramanujan’s spirit prevails, and we see him elected a Fellow of the College, a satisfying vindication of genuine genius over jealous bigotry. As one of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is [his] personal friend.”
The film takes the mathematics quite seriously. Two distinguished mathematicians — Manjul Bhargave and Ken Ono — are associate producers of the film. Bhargava is a winner of the Fields Medal — often called “the Nobel Prize of mathematics” — and Ono is a Guggenheim Fellow.
How can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof?
Portraying Ramanujan’s work cinematically is of course especially challenging. Even if the audience were shown mathematical formulas he devised, few would comprehend them, much less see the genius it took to come up with them. And, unlike some scientists or other scholars that have a sudden dramatic “Eureka!” moment when they encounter the central theory or discovery for which they become famous, Ramanujan produced a continuing torrent of major work, even when ill — nearly 3,900 results during his short life (really, just 14 years of mature research).
The film, however, is rather effective at conveying Ramanujan’s work directly, as in the scene in which Hardy describes to his valet what “partitions” are — the number of ways a number can be the sum of others, as “4” is the sum of “4,” “2 + 2,” “2 + 1 + 1,” and “1 + 1 + 1 + 1” — as well as the scene in which Hardy and Ramanujan are waiting for a cab, and when one pulls up, Ramanujan immediately observes that its ID number (1729) is unique in that it is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. The film even more successfully conveys his genius obliquely by showing how the other great Cambridge mathematicians received it: Hardy and Littlewood immediately recognized the genius in his work, and we see how the other mathematicians (who are initially governed by their prejudices) are eventually compelled to recognize it. Still, this is not a movie for the completely innumerate.
The acting is outstanding across the board. Dev Patel — well-known to American audiences from his leading roles in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) — ably conveys Ramanujan’s earnestness, integrity, and perseverance. Toby Jones is also superb as Littlewood, and Jeremy Northam givers a good supporting performance as Bertrand Russell. The supporting actresses are also excellent — Devika Bhise as Ramanujan’s young wife and Arundati Nag as his mother. But especially noteworthy is Jeremy Irons’ performance as Ramanujan’s sponsor, mentor, and friend G.H. Hardy.
Director Matthew Brown does an outstanding job conveying Ramanujan’s story, with descending into melodramatic hagiography. Really, he doesn’t need to because the true story — a modest, decent, indigent, largely self-taught genius in a colonized, poor country rises to the very top ranks of mathematics, in the face of considerable hostility, becoming a hero in his native land, before dying tragically young — is the very stuff of legend.
This film explores a number of issues of philosophic interest. Regarding the philosophy of religion, the exchanges between the avowed atheist Hardy and the devoutly religious Ramanujan on whether the gods give Ramanujan immediate access to mathematical truth are illustrative of how atheists and theists see the world in significantly different ways.
Regarding epistemology, Hardy is portrayed working hard to convince Ramanujan of the need not merely to recognize that a mathematical theorem is true, but to construct a proof that it is. This is an issue among other things about epistemic style: does any science advance more from bold broad conjectures, or by exact argumentation? (The movie interestingly presents Russell as counseling Hardy to let Ramanujan “run”; i.e., to let him do math as his heart dictates, which is by intuition instead of meticulous proofs. But considering the detailed constructive logical proofs that Russell — along with his mathematician coauthor Alfred North Whitehead — created in their seminal logical treatise Principia Mathematica, one is surprised and puzzled at this.)
Regarding history, the film nicely shows the effect that World War I had on the British intelligentsia, with some, such as Russell — and here the film is undeniably historically accurate — being opposed to the war, and having meetings on campus to organize opposition, while the rest of the faculty is outraged at what was taken to be a lack of patriotism.
Regarding psychology, the film invites us to think about the nature of mathematical genius: how can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof? Here we should observe that many of Ramanujan’s conjectures on prime numbers were proven incorrect — however insightful and reasonably accurate they may have been — by Littlewood and others. I would suggest that his tutelage by Hardy was of great use in getting him to provide more proofs, and that most of his 3,900 results have been proven, including work that is being used today to understand black holes.
Finally, regarding an issue of concern in America today, The Man who Knew Infinity helps the audience understand the value of immigrants. The vicious discrimination that this estimable and amiable genius from India faced at the hands of the British makes one wonder why immigrants to our own country today are being targeted for systematic abuse. This is as counterproductive as it is immoral.
In fine, this is a bioflick of rare insight, and not to be missed.[i]
[i]It should be noted that in 2014 an Indian company produced a major biographical film, Ramanujan. It ran two and a half hours, was shot in multiple languages (including some pidgin languages, such as Tamenglish), and had a mixed reception. I don’t believe it was generally released in America.