‘I’ ON CULTURE
Srinivasa Ramanujan was one of the world’s great mathematicians, yet is known to only a handful of people. A film about his life, The Man Who Knew Infinity, provides an insight into a man whose work was outstanding but whose life provides a benchmark for overcoming obstacles. Matthew Brown wrote and directed this sad film that depicts the plight of a young, self-taught genius and the obstacles he faced.
The film, a more or less biographical one, is not filled with joy. Ramanujan (Dev Patel), from a high caste but very poor family, was fascinated by mathematics even as a child. He filled notebooks with advanced equations, working out theories even as a young man in India. He created complex equations in his head, and was a brilliant theorist, even though he was self-taught.
His work caught the notice of important Indians, who arranged for G.H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons), one of the world’s top mathematicians at Cambridge University’s Trinity College in England, to read his work. Hardy immediately invited Ramanujan to that country. Originally, the young man was reluctant to leave his native land, but he was encouraged by many of his fellow countrymen, who saw a way of building their nation’s prestige.
It should be noted that his life in India was pretty rotten. His mother was not supportive, and he was so poor that he was not even able to live with his wife (Devika Bhise). So he went to England, where he, as expected in movies of this sort, faced enormous prejudice. England during the early 20th century was extremely racist and classist.
It was clear to almost all of the mathematicians that he was brilliant, but he refused to provide proofs of his theories, the nitty-gritty part of the work involved. According to Ramanujan, his work was so clear-cut that it did not require those proofs. Hardy disagreed, and the two men, although they got along well on a personal basis, fought. As a result, the publication of his work was delayed, something not good in a very short life marred by constant illness. He came to England in 1914 and left five years later. He died soon after his return to India.
Eventually, Ramanujan’s work was recognized for its brilliance. Although there was a lot of discussion about math in the film, be grateful that it’s limited, since most of it is as far beyond calculus as that subject is to multiplication. Much of the theory for black holes in space comes from his work. A cuter version of his math is what was called the “taxi game.” Hardy had looked at the number of a cab the young Indian took and proclaimed it a boring number. Ramanujan turned it into an interesting equation. The best parts of the film are the math discussions between several of the best minds of the time.
Ramanujan was recognized as one of the best math minds ever, which did little to help him personally. Yet a large part of modern mathematics has been devoted to examining and applying his work.
The movie is interesting, and the actors really good, but, in many ways, this comes across as a movie that somehow we have seen before. The genius who faces opposition from stuffy insiders is a part of many films. And Ramanujan seems far too brilliant a mathematician to be real. If this were fiction, we would say it was nonsense. But reality is stranger than fiction. When a person at 25, unknown and self-taught, can turn a whole field around in five years, it is incredible.
Patel is a fine actor who made a splash in Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. He makes a subject who could have been boring into a person we can root for. He is the heart of this film. Irons is so deep into his part as Hardy that he at times seems almost a caricature. Yet his humanity and generosity flows through. The real Hardy often claimed that finding Ramanujan was the high point of his career, although he was also one of the most important mathematicians of the century. His work on the mathematics of genetics actually created the field.
This film is fascinating as it shows great minds collaborating in ways that now seem common but were new. It is a small but worthy addition to current movies.