Infinite possibilities on screen

Infinite possibilities on screen

Hollywood diaries

Infinite possibilities on screen

As mathematicians go, Srinivasa Ramanujan isn’t exactly a household name. But his genius — the ability to divine formulas seemingly from thin air that, a century later, are informing computer development, economics and the study of black holes — has long captivated academics and artists alike.

For Matthew Brown, the writer-director behind The Man Who Knew Infinity, Mathematics was merely the canvas for a tale of 2 beautiful minds: Ramanujan, a South Indian autodidact, who believed that an equation held no meaning unless it expressed a thought of god, and G H Hardy, a Cambridge professor and atheist who refused to believe in what he could not prove.

Their collaboration — re-created here by Dev Patel and Jeremy Irons — was “the one romantic incident in my life,” Hardy would later recall.

In 1913, Ramanujan, an impoverished shipping clerk with little formal education, wrote to Hardy, a lecturer at Trinity College, in the hope of having his work published. The 9-page letter, filled with astonishing formulas that, as Hardy wrote, “seemed scarcely possible to believe,” prompted him to wonder if Ramanujan were a fraud. But after discussions with his colleague J E Littlewood, Hardy declared the young man’s brilliance on par with that of the renowned mathematicians Leonhard Euler and Carl Jacobi, and invited Ramanujan to Cambridge in the hope of seeing proof of his assertions.

The next year, Ramanujan, a Tamil Brahmin, lost caste, leaving his family behind in Madras, as he sailed to England to pursue his life’s purpose. He stayed for 5 years — enduring the hardships resulting from World War I, as well as searing bigotry and a bout of tuberculosis — and in 1918 became the second Indian to be elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and the first Indian Fellow at Trinity. Months later, he returned to India in failing health and died in 1920 at the age of 32, leaving behind just 3 notebooks and several letters packed with formulas that still inspire awe.

“In a way, he was some kind of prophet,” said Ken Ono, a Mathematics professor at Emory University; author (with Amir D Aczel) of My Search for Ramanujan: How I Learned to Count; and consultant on the film. “Whatever inspired him to write down his formulas was magic, because they’re precisely the things that we’ve discovered would be needed long after his death.”

Still — despite the success of films like A Beautiful Mind, about John Nash, and The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing — Mathematics is a hard sell in Hollywood. And Brown encountered mockumentary-like difficulties bringing his decade-long project to the screen, like the financier who insisted that Ramanujan — who married a 10-year-old girl when he was 21 — fall in love with a white nurse at Trinity to provide more casting options.

“It’s about Mathematics intrinsically, and I don’t think your run-of-the-mill audience is attracted by Mathematics,” Irons said. “But what it turns out to be is the story of an extraordinary relationship with Math as a background and a shared passion” — a passion so evident when he read Hardy’s essay A Mathematician’s Apology that it initially overwhelmed him.

“The world of the unknown was waiting,” he said, “and it was up to a great Mathematician to discover it.”

Then there was the issue of casting Ramanujan, who in real life was not traditionally photogenic.

“Let’s face it, he was probably on the autistic spectrum,” Ono said. “Try to imagine this chubby Indian kid with a slate sitting on the 1,000-year-old stone floors of this gigantic temple, scribbling away, and then writing formulas on a shabby notebook, probably oblivious to everything going on around him.”

To bring authenticity, Patel worked with a dialect coach to create a more easily understandable hybrid of his British accent and the thicker one of South India.

“There was nothing I could do about my height or the tone of my skin,” he said, so gestures indicating the physical sacrifices made by Ramanujan — for instance, his discomfort upon wearing shoes for the first time — were woven into the script.

Patel wanted to imbue his Ramanujan with “an essence of nobility, despite his humble beginnings.” He said “he was a reserved man but incredibly enlightened as a human being.”

The actor was also determined that his onscreen Math skills be watertight, and Ono not only monitored the accuracy of equations seen in papers and books, but also helped the stars wrap their mouths, and their fingers, around them.

“They thought they were going to have to use some sort of trickery,” Patel said of a scene that required him to write an especially elaborate equation on a chalkboard. “But I bashed it out, and everyone was like” — he gasped. “It felt quite satisfying.”

Ramanujan’s importance doesn’t reside with Hardy but in “the implications of his work that we are still beginning to only see glimpses of today,” Ono said.

“It’s like he was writing down a bible for us, but it was incomplete,” he added. “He gave us glimpses of what the future would be, and our job is to figure it out.”

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