For those outside the mathematics world, you might only know the name Srinivasa Ramanujan when mentioned in a film like Good Will Hunting. He has appeared in a few novels and plays, but with the exception of mathematicians, his contributions to the field went under-appreciated due to racial prejudice and lack of formal education.
Robert Kanigel’s biography on Ramanujan (published in 1991) was the first attempt to finally give Ramanujan his place in history. Now, a new film based on that book, by writer-director Matthew Brown and starring Dev Patel as Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons as G.H. Hardy, has hit theaters (expanding its theatrical run this week). Following his premiere at Tribeca, I spoke with Brown about what drew him to Ramanujan’s story, avoiding Hollywood whitewashing, and why it took him 12 years to bring Ramanujan’s story to the big screen.
Lesley Coffin (TMS): Did you know about Ramanujan’s work and contributions to mathematics before reading the biography, or was Kanigel’s book your introduction?
Matthew Brown: The book was definitely my introduction to him. I’d seen Good Will Hunting, and I know it was referenced in that film. But I don’t think I really thought about that after seeing the film, until reading the book and putting together exactly who the characters had been talking about. Robert’s biography really is an amazing biography. It is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read in fact.
TMS: Was there something about his writing which made it feel cinematic and inspired you to adapt it as a film?
Brown: It was always going to be a challenge, but Robert met me at MIT, around the corner from where my father lives. And we sat at a coffee shop for three hours and talked about the book and my ideas. Because it was really important to Robert that I understood the philosophy of his work, and that I didn’t shy away from the mathematics in the film. I had to understand it beyond the esoteric way people usually keep things at an arms’ length when telling stories of mathematicians. There’s something about Robert’s writing which airs towards authenticity, and he incorporated so much of the original writings from Hardy, who was a beautiful writer himself. And Robert does happen to have a visual way of writing and helps bring the math and relationships to life. In the book, the math gives subtext to their relationship. So I think I did think it was cinematic from the very beginning.
TMS: Did Hardy’s existing writing influence you to use him as the narrator?
Brown: Probably subconsciously. I’m drawn to conflict and drama and at the heart of the film, the central drama, always had to be their relationship. That was probably what interested me first and foremost, the tension in the relationship of these two men. But I was drawn to their shared sense of isolation, which I had personal reasons for being drawn to.
TMS: Because of Britain and India’s history of imperialism and oppression, there is risk of telling this story from Hardy’s point of view or making this into some kind of white savior story. Were you conscious of those concerns when you started working on the film?
Brown: Absolutely. It was always really important to start the film in India, when financially, it probably would have been better to focus on Ramanujan’s arrival in England. But I thought really hard about that and decided it was worth fighting to have the film start in India, because I didn’t think you’d appreciate what he went through in India and what he gave up to come to England, if we didn’t see his life in India. Colonialism and that white savior ideas are things Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, and myself wanted nothing to do with. Especially Dev, he felt very strongly about that not being the case. But at the same time, Hardy is one of the people who goes through a bigger change because of Ramanujan. And in a lot of ways, Dev’s role can seem kind of thankless. He suffers, and he is the noble character who is sort of changing other people around him. Ed Pressman really backed me on the film, creatively, and it took me 12 years to get this movie made. At one point, about 7 years, we were kind of told that if we just had Dev’s character fall in love with a white nurse, we’d be fully financed. But that wasn’t an option for us because we wanted to make the most authentic movie possible. You could make an entire movie about Ramanujan in India, before he ever comes to England. But the message I wanted was the fact that there are outliers in history, because talent can be found anywhere and that is something which needs to be nurtured. We don’t have universal education and we need people to open their minds and hearts and find those people like Ramanujan. Because there are others out there.
TMS: It’s interesting that you mentioned having trouble getting financing because you also had two very tricky subjects for a mainstream movies: math and faith. Did you have anyone ask if their conversations about God could be cut?
Brown: It might have been easier to get the movie made without those conversations, but I enjoyed having those conversations because they came out of their conversations about the beauty and complexity of mathematics. Hardy saw people on a scale of 100. He saw himself on the scale of 20, Littlefield as a 25, but he put Ramanujan at 100. Ramanujan discovered and rediscovered entire fields of mathematics which are so vast and enormous, there’s simply no explanation. Had he lived longer, it’s hard to imagine what he would have found. And he said, “An equation has no meaning unless it expresses a thought of God.” Those are Ramanujan’s words. And when talking with other mathematicians, they will say, how can you question his explanation? As a filmmaker, I never want to answer questions or give my views on faith, just to ask the questions and show Ramanujan and Hardy’s debate. I hope when people see the movie, they debate the subject. At the core, the film is the story of two people trying to see and understand and genuinely open their hearts to one another.
TMS: It’s also interesting someone suggesting creating a fictional white nurse, because you did include Ramanujan’s wife and mother in the film, and keep cutting back to them in India, while Ramanujan’s at Trinity College. Why did you feel it was important to keep them in story?
Brown: First and foremost, it is the true story, and his mother really did take the letters between them over all those years. Which is just a tragedy, because it just caused him to feel even more isolated. He didn’t understand what was going on or why she wouldn’t answer his letters. He had a child bride he married when she was 10 or 12 when they married, but she didn’t come to live with him until she was 17. And they did develop a relationship in that time. So that correspondence was very important to him, it offered him a lifeline home. Hardy took on causes, and saw Ramanujan as a cause, but when the war came and his pacifism because another cause and neglected Ramanujan, so it was real tragedy that he had lost that connection to home within that time. It’s bittersweet because Hardy had to learn how much Ramanujan gave up to come to England, his home, his family, breaking caste. That’s the growth Hardy does go through.
TMS: Do you feel you were able to capture and express how big Ramanujan’s contributions to the field of mathematics was and express that to audiences who might come in with very little knowledge about the subject and history?
Brown: I think Hollywood will always have a need to justify accomplishments. Something like The Imitation Game was a little easier to sell because they could claim Turing saved the world from the German’s. But the characters in this film were pure mathematicians and were not trying to save the world from a ticking bomb. It’s amazing that Ramanujan’s discoveries have had practical implications because they touch on string theory and black holes. But that wasn’t his point. Which is why I’m more concerned with people seeing the human story and artistry of Ramanujan’s journey and this specific friendship. As far as mathematicians who see the film, I’ve had an incredible outpouring from them telling me this is one of the first times they’ve seen mathematicians on screen portrayed as multidimensional characters, rather than crazy kooks scribbling on a blackboard.
Lesley Coffin is a New York transplant from the midwest. She is the New York-based writer/podcast editor for Filmoria and film contributor at The Interrobang. When not doing that, she’s writing books on classic Hollywood, including Lew Ayres: Hollywood’s Conscientious Objector and her new book Hitchcock’s Stars: Alfred Hitchcock and the Hollywood Studio System.
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