The inner workings of a mathematics genius is a tale many may step away from, but Matthew Brown sought out the audience with beautiful cinematography along with the help of a passionate cast and crew to bring to life the story of Srinivasa Ramanujan.
Faith Salie: I’m so excited to talk to you guys. Congratulations! Matthew let’s get right into it; here’s something I read that you said in an interview about this film. You said “First of all it’s a period piece, secondly it’s about a mathematician at the turn of the century, there’s an Indian as the lead and there’s not much of a love story apart from his leaving his wife behind. So how challenging was it to make this film? I understand it took you ten years, which is twice as long as Ramanujan was actually at Cambridge.
Matt Brown: That is true. It’s actually been going on for twelve years now, I’ve just stopped counting. But it’s extremely difficult to make this film and wouldn’t have been possible without well when Dev signed on that really changed everything. That was huge. It’s a hard film to get made, and it’s a hard film because Hollywood has some issues on the face of it. But we’ve been incredibly fortunate to have IFC Films put their arms around this film and decide to run with it and I’m so grateful for that. But IFC… and Jonathan Sehring is here somewhere, Ariana Bocco, Matt Landers, Lauren Schwarts, all you guys, Matt Boxer. It’s such a difficult film to get made you don’t understand how grateful I am they’re releasing it to the general public.
Salie: I can attest to that, he’s got tears in his eyes. This is a film-appreciating crowd so can you share any sort of Hollywood stories with us? Surely there were script suggestions from people who wanted to Hollywoodize it, I mean did anyone say this should be a Bollywood musical? What did they say?
Brown: Yeah they did! In a couple points they asked, “Can you put in a dance scene”? But I think that worse than that…
Salie: Well he dances with the numbers of infinity!
Brown: He does, Dev can shake a leg. You know they asked me, 5 or 6 years ago they asked you know “couldn’t you make a love story with a white nurse at Trinity because if you do that we can cast a famous British actress” and this film would’ve been made 5 or 6 years ago. But that wasn’t the film I wanted to make so we waited and I’m really grateful that we did because I think that one of the biggest messages from this film is that talent can be found anywhere and you have to open your heart to be able to see it and I think it’s an incredible story. I think that everyone who did this believed in it so much. I mean if I told you about what I put Dev Patel through to make this film you wouldn’t believe it.
Salie: Well tell us! Dev did Matthew take you out to lunch and tell you “kid I’m gonna make you an Indian superhero!” like what was the pitch?
Dev Patel: His pitch was a beautiful script really. I’ve never had the opportunity in taking part in a period cinema and also to play a character at that time with such nobility and you know he’s an icon. I was embarrassed I didn’t know him and when I was reading the script a light bulb went off in my head and I was like wait a minute this is the guy that they were talking about in Good Will Hunting when they’re in that bar scene; that wonderful Indian mathematician that was plucked from obscurity and believed in god and created these wonderful equations. I was humbled that he thought of my big-eared self to play him.
Salie: I understand that your dad’s an accountant but math wasn’t your thing?
Patel: Oh man, yeah I suffered from like mathematical induced brain freeze. So I kind of go blank when the tip comes and I try to figure it out but then my friend Sam always does it for me. So yeah there’s an irony in me playing this character but we spoke about it me and Matt, I mean the real thing that I could lock into to begin with was this relationship between two very different men from completely different parts of the world and how they come together and put their differences aside for their united passion for this art, which was mathematics.
Salie: What did you do to prepare yourself to get whatever grasp you needed as an actor of the math?
Patel: No meat. No lard.
Salie: Is that where you enrolled Manjul?
Brown: Well Manjul came in a little bit later actually. Manjul won the Fields medal, he’s one of the greatest mathematicians in the world. He came in later and helped us in getting the film over the finish line.
Salie: I also wanted to share that Manjul completed his Maths and Computer Science by the age of 14. How did you two come together?
Salie: You met at Mathfest?
Brown: Yeah I went to Mathfest-
Salie: Raise your hand if you’ve ever been to Mathfest!
Brown: – it was pretty incredible.
Salie: Where is Mathfest?
Brown: It was in Washington DC.
Manjul Bhargava: Yeah it was amazing to see a film director come to Mathfest that was one of our firsts. Mathfest is one of the big meetings of mathematicians in the country. Every year it’s an annual summer meeting and we decided that if there’s a film about mathematics coming out to the general public well the math community should certainly weigh in and put their support behind it and get to know it. This was our opportunity to bring it to the math public of the country and that’s where we first met.
Salie: So in what way did you consult? Were you huddling with Dev, explaining what the equations on the board meant, what did you do?
Bhargava: So there were two math consultants on the film, Ken Ono was the mathematician who really helped on the set. He’s the one that would get Dev to be saying all the equations in a way that would be convincing to other mathematicians, and I spent some time actually in the editing studio with Matt. Looking at the scenes and determing which ones did Dev and Jeremy really convince mathematicians they knew what they were doing. There was this one take where we were like yeah he looks like a mathematician.
Salie: And as a mathematician, Ina, how convinced were you as an audience member?
Ina Petkova: Well I’m not too familiar with Ramanujan other than what’s popularly known and I thought it was wonderful. But you had to coach Dev math as well, it’s not about just teaching someone how to speak math properly, it’s also about math within a certain generation so that must’ve been very challenging.
Bhargava: Actually working actors and make them do mathematics when they haven’t done it before is kind of – they ask questions that we never actually think about.
Salie: Oh can I hear a question that Dev asked that you never thought about before?
Bhargava: Well I know Jeremy asked “when you’re doing a proof what is the moment of excitement for you? Is it when you have the idea or is it when you’re writing out the proof, or is it the end when you’re writing out the final line?” and we were like huh we’re not sure we’ve never thought about that. We just do the proofs we never think about when we get excited by them, but for an actor you need to know that and we took a survey I know Ken was taking a survey, when do you get excited doing a proof. Most mathematicians said it’s when they have the idea, that’s when they get excited, and you see that in the movie when the ideas first come to them they have this twinkle in their eye and they really have to act that in a way that’s believable.
Brown: These were pure mathematicians, they weren’t and you saw this in the movie when Littlewood went off to do ballistics, which was more applied mathematics. But these guys were artists, and Manjul’s an artist that way and I’ve come to have a deep respect for that and I think that we can all kind of relate to the passion that an artist has regardless of what medium it’s going to be in, it’s something that I thought was universal about this film.
The general consensus of the panel, whether it be mathematician or cast, or the director himself, was that the movie’s focus was to properly portray math as what it is, art. For many it’s constantly seen as genius work and the past portrayals in film have continued to perpetuate certain images, but both Bhargava and Petkova were appreciative of the realistic & meditative nature of the math in the movie. Later on in the discussion the nature of Jeremy Irons’ character, G.H Hardy’s relationship with Dev Patel’s Ramanujan came up.
Bhargava: That was one of the major sources of tension between Ramanujan and Hardy, when they were working together. People still debate today whether Hardy handled that correctly, or whether he should have let him run as Bertrand Russell had suggested or if he should’ve stopped him as much as he had stopped. I think in hindsight given that they only got five years together, lots of people say that Hardy probably should have gone with letting him run and producing as much as possible and we could’ve figured it out later.
The points were made in terms of the discussion between rigor and intuition, which was the main source of opposing tendencies between the main character and the institution he came to work with. Although now it can be said a true mathematician needs a bit of both free-spirit and rigor, the film focused on the polarizing natures of Ramanujan and Hardy, yet coming together for their shared love for their art. When asked about her involvement with the film and her beginnings, lead actress Devika Bhise had to say:
Bhise: I’m from Manhattan so the whole character wasn’t anything close to who I am or what I’m like. It involved a lot of turning into this character entirely and becoming that skin, because even if I moved in a way that I normally do or talked or walked or held something incorrectly that would appear incorrectly. I was actually in a play in college in 2010, that would be the story of all this.
Salie: The Partition?
Bhise: Mhm, yeah Namagiri the goddess. Then I got contacted by Joe and Mark and then met Matt and talked about the cultural aspects of the movie.
Touching upon her own traditional dance training, Bhise went into depth about what it took to bring herself into the mindset of Janaki, the devoted wife of Ramanujan. Her dedication didn’t just stop at creating a new skin but being true to traditions, she wrapped her own sari every morning much like the women of that time in order to bring a proper authenticity.
The shooting in India and the cultural experience wasn’t the only authentic experience. Mathematician Ina Petkova mentioned the personal understanding of the racial tensions within the film, touching upon her own limitations and growth within her field on her own. When asked about the British education system, actor Dev Patel easily laid the question to rest with a simple:
Patel: Unfortunately I can’t, because I dropped out of school way too early. I left around 16 to pursue my dreams.
When asked about Ramanujan’s own abilities and talents, Bhargava eloquently related it to the workings of a painter. Upon looking at the art a person can tell it is a masterpiece and be in awe of the mind of the artist, much like that was Srinivasa Ramanujan. Relating his mind to the likes of Newton, Bhargava and Brown quoted Hardy’s personal journals to truly portray the significance of the Indian mathematician’s brilliant mind.
With his equations still being used today, and found to be the main help in understanding black holes, which comes back to Bhargava stating the world did not see a mind like Ramanujan’s for hundreds of years before his time and hasn’t seen one since he passed. Honoring the mind of the father of revolutionary formulas comes the passionate work of director Matthew Brown’s The Man Who Knew Infinity.
It will be in theaters Friday, April 29. We screened the film at the Tribeca Film Festival.