These academics and amateur historians have no proof to the contrary, mind you. They simply base their beliefs on the rationale that no one so untutored and from such a backward part of the then known world, meaning England, could possibly possess the genius to do so.
The man who produced the most glorious works in the English language surely must have been formerly trained by academics such as themselves.
The story of the movie “The Man Who Knew Infinity” tells of a surprisingly similar situation where a man, a genius, actually stood in midst of such academics, breaking bread and passing them in hallways. Yet they still, for the most part, refused to believe in his existence.
Not that the Fellows and administrators of Trinity College, Cambridge, couldn’t see the man standing before them. But the man, like Shakespeare, didn’t come with the right education or from the right part of the world.
Yet a few theorems he sent in 1913 to Godfrey Harold (“G. H.”) Hardy, the man credited with reforming British mathematics, so astonished Hardy that he brought Ramanujan to Trinity College to work with him.
Hardy, however, was an outsider among the clubby mathematicians and academicians at Cambridge so he had a very difficult time getting any of his colleagues to accept the sheer brilliance of Ramanujan’s mind-bending work. No one with his background could possibly be asserting the break-through theorems he was as far as they were concerned.
It’s funny really that we humans can so easily accept the reality of malfunctioning minds, of mental impairments and damaged psyches, but refuse to accept the opposite yet no less real mental phenomenon of pure genius.
How to explain a Beethoven or a Shakespeare or a Ramanujan? Do you need to? Isn’t the work itself proof of genius?
Today, among physicists and mathematicians, Ramanujan’s work is still leading the way in their own work on string theory, black holes and quantum gravity. But back then, during World War I, Ramanujan not only ran up against opposition from the Fellows at Trinity, he found himself in a constant battle with his own mentor and collaborator, Hardy, to prove his theorems before he published.
This movie, based on a 1991 book by Robert Kanigel and written and directed by Matthew Brown (2000’s “Ropewalk”), does a fine job of cutting through the math chat that almost no one in the audience is going to understand anyway to give you the living, breathing men who collaborated and clashed a century ago.
Dev Patel, who himself rose from obscurity with “Slumdog Millionaire” only to prove himself a fine actor over a number of roles in all sorts of films, plays Ramanujan. He looks nothing like the stocky man seen in century-old photos but who cares? He acts like the man, with his lightning fast mind and quicksilver passion for mathematics.
Patel’s Ramanujan sees spiritual significance in his gifts, in his love for the beauty of pure math and his almost unworldly comprehension of concepts that every other moral has struggled for years to understand. There is fire in his eyes and determination in his posture and gait until ill heath takes its toil.
Jeremy Irons, always adept at playing emotionally stiff, social regressive, coolly cerebral outsiders, is superb as G.H. Hardy, a man married to his science, indeed so buried in it that he has no time or inclination for human relations. He only gets along, really, with Ramanujan and his longtime collaborator John Littlewood (Toby Jones, absolutely fine).
The early parts of the movie are set in India, where Ramanujan is a lowly shipping clerk working for the British (personified ably by Stephen Fry). Yet he has taken a wife (played by the American-born beauty Devika Bhisé, who is new to film but I’m sure not for long), whom he can barely support along with his mother.
He already possesses extraordinary intellectual powers that no one in India, as far as he can tell, is able to appreciate or channel into work the world actually needs. He comes from a warm, tropical clime where passion rules, yet must journey, ironically and against his Brahmin tenets, across the sea to cold, damp, dreary England to find the succor that will allow his genius to blossom.
I don’t want anyone to think that the mathematical arguments and the opposition Ramanujan goes up against is the dry stuff of Masterpiece Theater. As a filmmaker, Brown has created scenes of disputation and cajoling between these two men, with Littlewood and another fellow named Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) chiming in here and there, that makes you appreciate the grandeur of such rarified thinking and sensibilities.
For this is a movie about, first and foremost, passion. Math in this movie is seen as akin to art. Ramanujan himself has a line to his young wife about math being like painting without colors. He later tells Hardy he sees every equation an expression of the God.
Since Hardy is an ardent atheist this hardly brings the men any closer together but you see in the way Irons plays the man that he gets this concept even if he can’t, you know, “prove” it. For Hardy, as he forever remonstrates with this prodigy, it isn’t enough to assert brilliant theorems, you have to prove them for the world to believe them.
Thus Ramanujan represents the poetic soul in touch with the infinite and its fundamental mysteries while Hardy stands solidly on earthy practicality and rational thought, unable or unwilling to fully understand his young protégé’s irrational desires to leap into a sheer beauty he equates with Godliness.
Cinematographer Larry Smith, who worked with Kubrick, uses his light sources, meaning the weather, to dramatically differentiate between India and England, and between the exhilarating rigors of mental exercise and the gloomy depression resulting from bigoted, stubborn resistance. In an added plus, the production actually got permission to film at Trinity College.
Unlike Shakespeare, Ramanujan did not have a long life, but through his work he continues to live on because of the vast number of “expressions” from God he received over the course of that working life.
Wherever these theroems came from, Ramanujan made it look too easy. That may always be the curse of true genius.
Opens: April 29, 2016 (IFC Films)
Production companies: Edward R. Pressman Film Corp., Animus Films, Cayenne Pepper Productions, Xeitgeist Entertainment, Marcys Holdings
Cast: Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, Toby Jones, Stephen Fry, Devika Bhisé, Jeremy Northam, Anthony Calf, Shazad Latif, Arundhati Nag
Director-screenwriter: Matthew Brown
Based on the book by: Robert Kanigel
Producers: Edward R. Pressman, Jim Young, Joe Thomas, Matthew Brown, Sofia Sondervan, Jon Katz
Director of photography: Larry Smith
Production designer: Luciana Arrighi
Music: Coby Brown
Costume desginer: Ann Maskrey
Editor: J.C. Bond
PG-13 rating, 108 minutes