The man who knew infinity (Matt Brown, 2015)


The man who knew infinity, directed by Matt Brown (2015).

Score: mediocre.

The man who knew infinity is a biopic about Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician who made major contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. He was compared to Euler and Jacobi by his peers, became a Fellow of the Royal Society and died of disease at age thirty-two. Now you know who the man was, I’m going to tell you why this movie sucks so hard.

The movie opens with G. H. Hardy (Jeremy Irons) affably telling us how he didn’t invent Ramanujan (Dev Patel) but discovered him. This is a play on a later line that theorems are not invented but discovered that backfires horribly because it makes it look like Ramanujan would have not amounted to anything if Hardy hadn’t believed in him. Three cheers for The Good White Man! In real life, Ramanujan was a respected researcher in mathematics back in India, and it was the magnitude of his genius that drew attention to him from Europe. In the movie, he lives in a parody of India where if you know how to work an abacus you’re a genius. The Indian characters speaking English to each other in thick Indian accents made me cringe. Only twenty-odd minutes of the movie are spent in India, the audiences can endure twenty minutes of subtitles.

In the movie, Ramanujan gets on the first ship out of Madras as soon as The Good White Man is interested in his work. In real life, it took some time to get him to move to Europe, partly for religious reasons and partly because I guess it’s hard to leave your family and friends behind for years even if The Good White Man is offering you a scholarship. The second act of the movie consists basically of The Good White Man defending The Poor Brown Man from The Chauvinists because hey, The Poor Brown Man might be brown, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be a genius. I’m sure Ramanujan suffered the effects of racism while he was in England, but there’s no way an obscure professor gets to bring a guy from India with a scholarship if there isn’t general consensus that the guy is good at what he does.

Hardy and Ramanujan had different ways of working, as seen in the film: Hardy focused very hard on proof and rigour, while Ramanujan worked in a more intuitive way. But in real life, Hardy and Ramanujan were peers, not mentor and apprentice. Ramanujan didn’t have to prove anything to anyone, he was actually invited to Cambridge and awarded a PhD for his original research. This whole subplot where Hardy forces Ramanujan to write proofs for his theorems makes Hardy look condescending and Ramanujan whimsical and stubborn. Those dynamics would have been good in a story about a master and an apprentice, not coming from a researcher to another guy who’s having him for breakfast every day. Hell, if the guy is so good, just get him another person who writes proof for what he’s making, that’s actually the easy part.

The third act of the movie focuses on Ramanujan’s illness and death, and on The Good White Man doing everything in his power to get The Poor Brown Man’s work acknowledged. In real life, Ramanujan was elected a member of the Royal Society because he rocked that hard, not because Hardy went around pestering people about it. In fact, he wasn’t even the first Indian to receive the honour. Also, the whole subplot with his mother hiding Janaki’s letters so he would come back sooner is just disgusting.

A movie that should have been about an Indian genius and his eventual visit to Europe was made instead about how good a white man is for not being prejudiced and admitting that a non-white can be pretty smart too. And fighting for him, because he can’t!

Last but not least, the movie says virtually nothing about Ramanujan’s work, which would be the most interesting thing about the movie (like with Emily Dickinson’s biopic). I really wish someone would start making biopics that actually said something about the person’s work. In a format similar to The big short, with some info dumps here and there that made science and art more approachable to people. Now that would be enjoyable to watch.

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