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The Man Who Knew Infinity – A Math Biopic, With Dev Patel, Applies a Different Calculus

By: Kathryn Shattuck

Source: The New York Times

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In “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” Dev Patel, right, plays the mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons the Cambridge professor G.H. Hardy. Credit Richard Blanshard/IFC

As mathematicians go, Srinivasa Ramanujan isn’t exactly a household name. But his genius — the ability to divine formulas seemingly from thin air that, a century later, are informing computer development, economics and the study of black holes — has long captivated academics and artists alike.

For Matthew Brown, the writer-director behind “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” opening Friday, April 29, mathematics was merely the canvas for a tale of two beautiful minds: Mr. Ramanujan, a South Indian autodidact who believed that an equation held no meaning unless it expressed a thought of God, and G. H. Hardy, a Cambridge professor and atheist who refused to believe in what he could not prove.

Their collaboration — recreated here by Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons — was “the one romantic incident in my life,” Mr. Hardy would later recall.

In 1913, Mr. Ramanujan (pronounced rah-MAH-new-jin), an impoverished shipping clerk with little formal education, wrote to Mr. Hardy, a lecturer at Trinity College, in the hope of having his work published. The nine-page letter, filled with astonishing formulas that, as Mr. Hardy wrote, “seemed scarcely possible to believe,” prompted him to wonder if Mr. Ramanujan were a fraud. But after discussions with his colleague J. E. Littlewood, Mr. Hardy declared the young man’s brilliance on par with that of the renowned mathematicians Leonhard Euler and Carl Jacobi, and invited Mr. Ramanujan to Cambridge in the hope of seeing proof of his assertions.

The next year, Mr. Ramanujan, a Tamil Brahmin, lost caste, leaving his family behind in Madras (now Chennai) as he sailed to England to pursue his life’s purpose. He stayed for five years — enduring the hardships resulting from World War I, as well as searing bigotry and a bout of tuberculosis — and in 1918 became the second Indian to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and the first Indian Fellow at Trinity. Months later, he returned to India in failing health and died in 1920 at the age of 32, leaving behind just three notebooks and several letters packed with formulas that still inspire awe.

“In a way, he was some kind of prophet,” said Ken Ono, a mathematics professor at Emory University; author (with Amir D. Aczel) of “My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count”; and consultant on the film. “Whatever inspired him to write down his formulas was magic, because they’re precisely the things that we’ve discovered would be needed long after his death.”

Mr. Ramanujan and Mr. Hardy’s dance to infinity has been mined before, in works like David Leavitt’s novel “The Indian Clerk” and “A Disappearing Number,” a play conceived by Simon McBurney and his theater company, Complicité.

“The film is about the cost that comes when people wait out of fear to connect in their relationships,” said Mr. Brown, who drew on Robert Kanigel’s 1991 biography of the same name.

Still — despite the success of films like “A Beautiful Mind,” about John Nash, and “The Imitation Game,” about Alan Turing — mathematics is a hard sell in Hollywood. And Mr. Brown encountered mockumentary-like difficulties bringing his decade-long project to the screen, like the financier who insisted that Mr. Ramanujan — who married a 10-year-old girl when he was 21 — fall in love with a white nurse at Trinity to provide more casting options. (The film ultimately stuck to the facts, though his bride’s age is never revealed.)

“It’s about mathematics intrinsically, and I don’t think your run-of-the-mill audience is attracted by mathematics,” Mr. Irons said. “But what it turns out to be is the story of an extraordinary relationship with math as a background and a shared passion” — a passion so evident when he read Mr. Hardy’s essay “A Mathematician’s Apology” that it initially overwhelmed him.

“The world of the unknown was waiting,” he said, “and it was up to a great mathematician to discover it.”

Then there was the issue of casting Mr. Ramanujan, who in real life was not traditionally photogenic.

“Let’s face it, he was probably on the autistic spectrum,” Mr. Ono said. “Try to imagine this chubby Indian kid with a slate sitting on the thousand-year-old stone floors of this gigantic temple, scribbling away, and then writing formulas on a shabby notebook, probably oblivious to everything going on around him.”

To bring authenticity, Mr. Patel worked with a dialect coach to create a more easily understandable hybrid of his British accent and the thicker one of South India.

“There was nothing I could do about my height or the tone of my skin,” he said, so gestures indicating the physical sacrifices made by Mr. Ramanujan — for instance, his discomfort upon wearing shoes for the first time — were woven into the script.

Still, the portrayal has drawn criticism, particularly in India, where the crew filmed around unannounced fireworks displays, a strike and a mob of onlookers for nine days.

“He was a staunch Brahmin, in his mannerisms, speech and views, and if one were to alienate him from all these traits, the very character may well suffer,” a critic wrote in The Hindustan Times when the film debuted in India in November. He went on to criticize Mr. Patel’s portrayal as “an Anglicized example of one so essentially Indian, nay, Tamil,” and compared the film unfavorably with “Ramanujan,” a 2014 biopic by Gnana Rajasekaran.

Mr. Patel wanted to imbue his Ramanujan with “an essence of nobility, despite his humble beginnings.” He said “he was a reserved man but incredibly enlightened as a human being.”

The actor was also determined that his onscreen math skills be watertight, and Mr. Ono not only monitored the accuracy of equations seen in papers and books but also helped the stars wrap their mouths, and their fingers, around them.

“They thought they were going to have to use some sort of trickery,” Mr. Patel said of a scene that required him to write an especially elaborate equation on a chalkboard. “But I bashed it out, and everyone was like” — he gasped. “It felt quite satisfying.”

Mr. Ramanujan’s importance doesn’t reside with Mr. Hardy but in “the implications of his work that we are still beginning to only see glimpses of today,” Mr. Ono said.

“It’s like he was writing down a bible for us, but it was incomplete,” he added. “He gave us glimpses of what the future would be, and our job is to figure it out.”

 

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