Swati & Devika Bhise on the intricacies of The Man Who Knew Infinity
With The Man Who Knew Infinity, the life and genius of mathematician Ramanujan was portrayed on-screen for the first time in over a century, immortalizing his work. Mrs Swati Bhise, veteran Bharatanatyam dancer and longtime ambassador of Indian culture, came onboard to add the cultural nuances of the life of a Tamilian Brahmin family in the beginning of the 20th century.
In the second half of the interview meet actor Devika Bhise who was always fond of acting and performing. Growing up and watching her mother in the capacity of an artist and performer helped fuel that fire. Kicking off her professional career as an actress in her twenties in New York City was extremely competitive, and she considers herself lucky to have found the projects in which she has acted thus far. In the film, Devika truly embodies the adage of less being more, as Janaki, Ramanujan’s wife.
In this riveting interview, we indulge in a chat with the mother – daughter duo as they talk about their backgrounds, the film, their experiences and more.
Tell us a little bit about your background in Bharatanatyam, theatre and the arts. How do your creative processes co-relate across mediums?
I’ve trained in Hindustani classical music since I was a young girl. I also learnt Indian classical dances such as Bharatanatyam and Kathak, but not professionally, and by the time I was 14, I knew I had to go to one of the best dance schools in the country. At 15, I went to my guru Sonal Mansi (who received the Padma Bhushan award in 2004), who initially refused to teach me. So I did a 3-month dharna (protest) outside her house, and she eventually took me on as a disciple. I spent many years after that learning from, and training and performing with her.
By the time I graduated, I knew that I had to be a professional dancer, although my parents were hardly excited about the idea of me dropping out of college. I graduated from Welham Girls’ School, Dehradun, and wanted to go to Kalakshetra in Chennai and focus solely on dance, but eventually went on to study at Lady Shri Ram College in Delhi. I continued to professionally perform at various venues. I was offered a few film roles, but that was something my parents were dead against – music and dance performances were all right, but the film line wasn’t acceptable to them.
I moved to the United States in 1982, but till 1991 I’d spend about 6-7 months in India. I’d commute back and forth, and was teaching Indian classical dance on a semester basis in 1983 at Columbia University. I represented the government, performed at the Consulate. The Consulate-General sent me to the Virgin Islands and to Puerto Rico and before I knew it, I was on the university track. I went on to lecture on the dance form at Rochester University, Princeton..
At that point, no one used to do multimedia performances. I went to the Government of India asking them for slides so I could perform. They didn’t have anything, so I would go to Khajuraho and perform and get my husband to take photographs. They weren’t professional of course, but I couldn’t afford to hire a photographer and we didn’t have as much access to gadgets back then. I would project these images behind me during my performances, creating a multimedia experience in the 1980’s. I was one of the first people to do that. It helped foreign audiences understand the environment in which the dance form had evolved originally, and added context to the dance performance.
I went on to perform for Kofi Annan at the 40th anniversary of the General Assembly. Being in America, they didn’t really have a market for Bharatanatyam or Indian classical dance at the time, so I had to reinvent the art in a certain way. The knowledge of the Shastras really helped me explain the form better to a diaspora that was uninitiated. It really caught on, and I was doing 70 shows a year at one point.
I discussed the co-relations I find spanning mediums with my guru recently, and she wasn’t at all surprised. She reminded me of how when I was younger and learning the shastras – something that most people don’t bother to do – and how it wasn’t just a religious point of view. I was a Western-educated girl who knew how to hold a conversation on Kalidas’ poetry, or Sanskrit, and be able to relate storylines in that space to the shastras. Throughout my training, I also learnt how to be a music director (what they would call a Conductor in the West) – you’d be working with the singer on how to sing, the drummer, the veena, the mridangam – here, it’s all a part of being a Bharatanatyam dancer. Living in the West, I realised that they were always confused as to how I could do it all. It was all a part of the same process, really; it’s a composite art form.
How did you come on board for The Man Who Knew Infinity. What was it about the film that connected with you?
Having done dance, and multimedia, and taught the theory behind the dance form, it all added value to my experience on set. I’ve trained Devika since she was a young girl, and I suppose I was a little harder on her than the rest of my little soldiers (laughs)
She also studied all the multi art forms behind it. I always believe that if you study the dance form the proper way, it allows you to go into every single medium. When Devika got the role of Janaki in The Man Who Knew Infinity, she gave me a call saying that the director wanted to meet me and read some lines. I was quite reluctant at first, as I had my hands full, but I got on a conference call and told him what I knew about Ramanujan’s life. I read the script on a flight to Greece, and by the time I alighted from it, I was quite irked. I get annoyed when Indian culture is misrepresented, and I gave them a call and told them about the shortcomings in the film.
There was a lack of cultural nuance that you can’t blame them for, but affected me deeply. I just felt like the South Indian culture was not depicted accurately, I noted down all the differences and sent it to them.
I get annoyed when Indian culture is misrepresented, and I gave them a call and told them about the shortcomings in the film
What was working with the director Matthew Brown like, and what was the brief you were given? Please elaborate a little on the team dynamics.
I told Matthew about all the discrepancies and he was happy to understand and incorporate them. Working with Devika on set was also quite an experience. We would both give each other space to do our things, but I made sure that she knew she had to really embody Janaki – I made sure she was as comfortable in a Madisar Iyengar saree before the shoot started. She picked up on the body language of Janaki and that she had to speak with her eyes, something her classical dance training played a role in.
The UK shoot was over 30 days, and the India shoot was for 10 days. That was a very hectic month. It seems like a blur now, we were all highly involved in the process. It was a blast!
As the executive producer, what was the vision you had for the film?
I felt a certain sense of responsibility to see this film through, especially having been an ambassador of Indian culture for 33 years.
I wanted to make the portrayal as accurate as possible to really convey the cultural and socio-economic realities of the time. There was a war going on, as well. Ramanujan’s story is an important one, so it was important to tell it accompanied by the appropriate context.
I felt a certain sense of responsibility to see this film through, especially having been an ambassador of Indian culture for 33 years
You’ve spoken in a few interviews about how growing up in a Tamilian Brahmin family is a way of life. How have your personal experiences/learnings been an influence in the film?
It’s very hard to understand the culture if you haven’t grown up around it. They have very strong cultural habits, food habits, how they conduct themselves. They believe in their Acharyas, they believe in being traditional and simplistic, and so it was with Ramanujan.
It was important to portray this holistically for what it was – a satvik, simple life, not necessarily just poverty. If you notice, the women always wear jewellery – earrings, anklets, bangles – regardless of how poor they are. They don’t want the neighbours to know! (Laughs)
The women aren’t docile little things, they have a fire in their belly and they live with a certain unwavering pride.
There were also other small touches that added to a bigger picture – how the banana leaf would be, how a Tamilian Brahmin would never walk around with her hair open, the conversations between mother-in-law and daughter-in-law… there was also the socio-economic context. In 1905, the couple wouldn’t be having a snack on the beach – they would only eat in their homes. All of these points were important.
How were you approached for The Man Who Knew Infinity’ and what was it about the project that appealed to you?
When I was in my first year at Johns Hopkins, I acted in a play in Baltimore called Partition, by Ira Hauptman, which is based on the book ‘The Man Who Knew Infinity’ by Robert Kanigel. I played a different character, and the style of the play was very different, but the story of Ramanujan was the same. Many years later, I met the producers and director and did a screen test, and after many rounds of meetings and auditions I got the role. I loved Matt’s script, and I appreciated that his wife, Janaki, played a strong and supportive role in Ramanujan’s life, whereas she was not included in the play.
What was the brief given to you, and what were some of the intricacies of playing Ramanujan’s wife that you paid special attention to?
I loved spending time in the temple. Just walking around in the beautiful, ancient structure really made me feel like a part of the history and part of the culture. It was so easy to get seeped into the life of Janaki and that time period while I was there, because the temple was untouched by modern life. Wearing the nine yard Madisar sari also helped me transform into the role, and I took great care in wrapping the sari myself everyday to get into character.
I took great care in wrapping the sari myself everyday to get into character
Tell us about how working with Dev Patel was like; how did you find that chemistry in your process even though there is such minimal/controlled interaction between the characters onscreen?
Dev is lovely—energetic, enthusiastic, and a pleasure to work with. We became good friends on the set, which definitely helped with our on screen chemistry, and generally it’s nice to have someone you get along with on set, when you are working so many long and vigorous days.
Have you read the book by Robert Kanigel that the film is based on, and to what extent did it deepen your understanding of the character?
Yes, I have. The book doesn’t include very many details about Janaki, but it did help me understand the magnitude of Ramanujan’s work, and that gives context to his entire story. In terms of my character, I think she understood how crucial Ramanujan’s work was despite not knowing the specific intricacies of the actual mathematics, and in that way the book definitely helped me. I also met and spoke with Robert Kanigel, the author of the book, a few weeks before the shoot, and he had met Janaki shortly before her death so hearing his insight was also invaluable.
The book doesn’t include very many details about Janaki, but it did help me understand the magnitude of Ramanujan’s work, and that gives context to his entire story
How did your mother working on the film as the Executive Producer influence your performance? Would you say your equation helped you perform your best?
As a Bharatanatyam dancer, my mother is well versed in the Tamilian Brahmin Iyengar culture, and was able to provide insight into the specifics of that culture and community. In order to make sure the portrayal of India was authentic to the time period and Tamilian Brahmin Iyengar culture, she served as a cultural consultant and Executive Producer to limit any inaccuracies that were not made as deliberate creative choices. We both respect each other as artists, and mostly stayed out of one another’s way. However she did help me with my dialect and costumes, so I am happy that she was on set.