Growing up poor in Madras, India, Srinivasa Ramanujan Iyengar earned admittance to England’s prestigious Cambridge University during WWI, where he becomes a pioneer in mathematical theories thanks to the guidance of his professor, G.H. Hardy. Not exactly the kind of storyline that seems to offer material that would an appealing drama let alone make for award-worthy film with major stars.
Nonetheless, director Matt Brown crafted a screenplay that attracted such established stars as Dev Patel, Jeremy Irons, and Toby Jones who gave his film a shot. It turned into a beautiful portrait of a mentor/student relationship that offered inspiration in a world often devoid of such inspiration.
Not only did the film win critical accolades but it's now being touted as a contender for various awards — especially since executive producer Edward R. Pressman has launched a campaign for Jeremy Irons (as the mentor Hardy) to nominated for a supporting actor Oscar. After its World Premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival and its USA debut at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York last April, it was released during the spring. The film garnered decent box office results and critical acclaim. Besides the dynamic between Irons and Patel, it offered an insider’s look into the seemingly cold, arcane world of mathematics.
But with the right writer/director behind the production such a story can prompt an intriguing narrative. and Matt Brown seems to be that creator.
Thanks to his dogged perseverance, this project finally came to fruition after being 12 years in the making. Especially since the director didn’t have that much experience, having made two features previously and no passion for math ( though he went to an alternative school in Brookline, Massachusetts where arts were the focus he did learn some math). But Brown believed in this. As he has explained in another interview, “It’s a very personal project; I wrote it in an oncology ward taking care of my brother with his wife while he was going through terrible cancer.”
Q: What led you into doing this film - did you have much interest in the mathematics, otherwise what would lead you to do Srinivasa Ramanujan’s story?
MB: I came across Robert Kanigel’s biography, the Man Who Knew Infinity, about 12 years ago. It was never about the mathematics for me, I was fascinated by the human story between Ramanujan and the journey to England and the isolation he was going through and his relationship with GH Hardy and how the two of them had to bridge the gap.
It was never so much about the mathematics in the beginning, but I came to respect pure mathematics as an art form, but I really came to understand the passion mathematicians have for their work, like musicians have for theirs. It’s something that audiences can appreciate because it’s really the human story under the film.
Q: Ramanujan’s mother had a strong influence on him growing up, particularly with regards to his religious education…
MB: Ramanujan’s mother? I know she was strong in Carnatic music. She was a singer, and he was surrounded by Carnatic music his whole life — it has intricate mathematical rhythms to it and that was probably a strong influence on him. She was also very invested in astrology.
Q: When he was in Madras, he got a scholarship to go to the college there, but he dropped out. It was briefly touched on in the film but can you elaborate on this...
MB: He got kicked out of two different colleges, I believe in Madras. He became to involved in his mathematics that he just didn’t concentrate on his other subjects. And at that time if you didn’t have a degree, it was a much bigger deal than it is today, probably, in that you can’t find any form of employment. He really became isolated in his own world with mathematics.
Q: Due to Ramanujan’s lack of a college education, he didn’t know the concept of a mathematical proof. After Ramanujan sent professor Hardy several of his theorems, Hardy didn’t want to push Ramanujan to prove do any mathematical proofs but did he encourage Ramanujan to allow his intuition be appled to his mathematics?
MB: You’re right, it was kind of proof versus intuition in many ways. That’s at the core of the story. If Hardy had known Ramanujan would only be alive for five years, I think there’s a strong argument that suggest he would have encouraged him to go off and write theorem after theorem.
Ramanujan did so much with mathematics that they’re still trying to understand it today. It’s tragic that we don’t have more of his mathematics. Imagine what he could have done? Because Hardy didn’t know that at the time, it was important to him to learn rigor.
Rigor is an important part of mathematics and allows people to understand how they got to certain places. It’s more than proving right or wrong, it provides understanding to a process.
Also, within the education Hardy was trying to provide, Ramanujan was rediscovering entire fields of mathematics he didn’t even know he was rediscovering. He had to be caught up on a couple centuries worth of mathematics just so he didn’t waste his time rediscovering things.
Q: What was the social dynamic between India and England — obviously when he came to England, he was the outsider — how did you balance the three elements or structure in the film — his time in Madras, his adjusting as an Indian trying to survive in England, and third, of showing his serious relationship with Hardy. How did you balance those things, and the social dynamic?
MB: In 1914 there were very few Indians that would have come to England and for Ramanujan to come to England it required him to break past. It was forbidden for a Braman to cross the sea. And there were very few Indians there at the time, it was the height of colonialism in many ways. There was a lot of racism.
On top of which, when the Great War started in 1914, you had all these students from Cambridge going off to war, there was a tremendous amount of resentment that Indian students who remained on the campus during that time were safe and guarded.
There was an increased amount of resentment, never mind that as a vegetarian by faith he wasn’t able to obtain fresh egetables because of the rationing, so that made it even more challenging. He really had incredible social obstacles to overcome. It was a real story of perseverance and bravery by Ramanujan.
Q: Hardy was a highly ranked mathematicians, John littlewood was 30, David Hilbert Hilband was an 80, and Ramanujan was 100 so Hardy showed his appreciation for the work they did together…. There was an enormous amount of cooperation between them.
MB: This was a man who had discovered trigonometry at age 13 only to find out that it was already discovered.
Q: Imagine what could have been done with their relationship — it makes you appreciate their relationship.
MB: Hardy had an enormous amount of respect for Ramanujan, I don’t think he could wrap his head around how it all came to him. And they, in talking to some of the greatest mathematicians alive today, they say there’s really no better explanation than Ramanujan’s own explanation, that Namagiri [a Hindu Goddess] put the formulas on his tongue while he slept.
We can’t explain how there’s a mind that’s this incredible in the world, but you have to wonder if there aren’t more minds in the world like this that are undiscovered today. And we don’t have universal education today, so outliers like this, we have to find this kind of talent and nurture it.
Q: What was invoved in the process of putting Jeremy Irons and Dev Patel together? Their chemistry is amazing.
MB: It’s incredible, isn’t it? They had wonderful chemistry and I think for both of the actors it was an opportunity to play roles that were very different from roles they played recently. They had a lot of passion for the subject and wanting to tell the story. We’re an independent film and it’s a challenging shoot, and these actors really came prepared and made incredible performances in difficult circumstances.
Q: How much did you feed mathematical concepts to these actors — or was it all Greek to them?
MB: They’re both very well aware of the human story, the incredible story that it is, so that’s what they were drawn to. As far as the mathematics go, we had Ken Ono as our mathematical advisor, he’s one of the top mathematicians in the world. He vetted the script with me and made sure everything was right in the art department as well as in the screenplay itself. So the actors could trust the dialogue and trust me as a director.
Q: Was that part of reason that you have some Japanese associate producers involved on this project? They are a lot of good mathematicians in Japan as well.
MB: It wasn’t. It just happened to be where Ken is from. I know his heritage is important to him and is proud of it but it had no bearing on my asking him to do the film. He’s one of the top mathematicians in the world and when he reached out to be part of the film we felt very lucky and honored to have him. He’s extremely passionate about Ramanujan and his story.
Q : What does the number 1729 mean to you — its the number that Hardy recalled when he rode the taxi to visit Ramanujan at the clinic…
MB: If I ever play a lottery ticket and it’s four numbers, those are the four numbers I will play.
Q: Didn’t they use that number sometimes in Star Trek or Futurama or anytime where numbers have meaning — they been used as a reference.
MB: It comes up in mathematics, it’s called taxicab numbers. It became a small field, Manjul Bhargava was explaining that to me. It’s incredible how his mind worked that he could recognize that.
Q: What sort of experience did you want audiences to discover through this film?
MB: I hope they take away the human story and that they find it to be an inspiring film. I hope it opens up their minds and their hearts. I hope it’s a film that… There are outliers in the world, so I hope that there are other Ramanujans out there that will be discovered.