The movies’ fascination with gadgets and those who invent them has not overlooked the importance of theory and ideas.
Back in 2001, the success of A Beautiful Mind, in which Russell Crowe was cast as the mentally ill but brilliant mathematician John Nash, started a trend that such films could be popular as well.
(An earlier film about another troubled mathematical genius, Good Will Hunting, was fictional but also well received.)
The trend peaked in the past couple of years with The Imitation Game (Alan Turing) and The Theory of Everything (Stephen Hawking). At a pinch you could add at least two features based on the life of Steve Jobs and one on Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg (The Social Network), not to mention some mind-challenging sci-fi adventures from Ridley Scott (Prometheus) and Christopher Nolan (Inception, Interstellar).
The Man Who Knew Infinity (Dendy) is about another mathematical genius, Srinivasa Ramanujan, and reportedly took 10 years to be brought to the screen. It is not the first film, however. An Indian one, called just Ramanujan, was made in 2014.
Both cover his life from the time when he was a young Tamil Brahmin in British-ruled Madras (now Chennai) just before World War I.
His prodigious intellect was recognised early if not always admired. At one point he says: “The British think I am a raving lunatic,” and a friend replies, “So do the Indians”.
After sending his theorems to Cambridge University mathematics professor G. H. Hardy, Ramanujan is invited there, leaving behind a young wife and a controlling mother (a staple in all Indian films).
He spends five years at Cambridge, working with Hardy on numbers and other concepts that still form the basis of much mathematical theory.
Their relationship, which is a clash of cultures as well as personality, provides the main basis of the story.
The deeply religious and zealous Ramanujan is played by Dev Patel, who has clocked up more than half a dozen major roles since his appearance in Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Contrary to appearances in this and Exotic Hotel films, Patel was actually born and raised in London.
Jeremy Irons, as Hardy, is an austere rationalist who believes in proof but has enough intuition to believe his protégé may indeed uncover the key to understanding infinity.
Hardy becomes a surrogate parent and has to battle the university bureaucracy, aided by the likes of philosopher Bertrand Russell (Jeremy Northam) and England’s other leading mathematician of the 20th
century, John Littlewood (Toby Jones).
Writer-director Matthew Brown, adapting Robert Kanigel’s book, sticks to a conventional treatment that reduces risk and puts a premium on exposition.
It doesn’t ruin the ending to know Ramanujan’s lifelong struggle with ill health cut his life short to just 32 years. He died in 1920 after returning home a year earlier diagnosed with tuberculosis and a severe vitamin deficiency.
India celebrates National Mathematics Day on his birthday, December 22.
Incidentally, Good Will Hunting contains a brief reference comparing its hero to Ramanujan. Rating: Parental guidance; 108 minutes.