In a previous post I wrote about my first two encounters with Srinivasa Ramanujan, the Indian mathematical genius who stirred up the British mathematical establishment in the early 20th century. As I mentioned there, a new movie directed by Matthew Brown was released last year with Jeremy Irons playing a very British G.H. Hardy — Ramanujan’s Cambridge mentor — and Dev Patel playing the Indian genius. Having seen the movie recently, I can talk now about this latest third encounter.
The Man Who Knew Infinity — the movie is based on Robert Kanigel’s book of the same name — focused mostly on the relationship between Hardy and Ramanujan, although there are a few scenes portraying his life prior to his trip to England in 1914. This opening scenes are basically an schematic account of Ramanujan’s struggle to gain a living and recognition for his work in his native India. It shows also his encounter with Sir Francis Spring (Stephen Fry), a British colonial administrator who encouraged him to correspond with several mathematicians in England, including G.H. Hardy.
After his arrival in England, Ramanujan begins a close collaboration with Hardy that would extend for several years as a consequence of the breaking out of the First World War. During those years, Ramanujan contributed to many fields including number theory, algebraic geometry, modular equations, and so on and on. He also established a close relationship with Hardy’s closer friend and colleague, J.E. Littlewood, brilliantly played by Toby Jones.
The movie does an excellent job portraying the evolving relationship between Hardy and his pupil. At the beginning, we see how Hardy and Ramanujan struggle with mutual cultural and methodological differences. Ramanujan was a mathematical genius for whom theorems and equations were self-evident and didn’t require proof but mostly intuition. On the other hand, and here the movie follows Kanigel’s book very closely, Hardy was a rigorous scholar. In fact, it was Hardy who first introduced rigorous demonstrations in British mathematics, a practice he learned from reading French mathematician Camille Jordan. So, in the movie we see Hardy insisting all the time that Ramanujan needs to prove his work: “proofs proofs proofs” are the words an impatient Hardy repeats all the time.
Unfortunately, the movie doesn’t dive too deep into the consequences of Ramanujan’s efforts to adapt to British customs. As Kanigel explains in his book, the vegetarian Ramanujan didn’t have an easy time in war-time Engiand. Access to fresh vegetables was limited so Ramanujan diet was deficient and he eventually developed a severe case of TB. The movie uses this tragic event to show the emotional evolution of Hardy, who does everything in his power to gain recognition and honors for his friend. In 1917, Ramanujan is elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, one of the youngest ever to be elected — he was 31 at the time. Ten months later, in October 1918, the young Indian finally becomes a Fellow of Trinity College, the first Indian to achieve such an honor. In a very emotional moment, we see a grateful Ramanujan being welcome to a room where the announcement of his fellowship is made by all the professors banging their fists on the table.
For a moment one has the impression that the director is going to betray History and transform the tragic life of a genius into a Disney happy-ending flick. Although it is true that Ramanujan died just a few months after his return home in 1919, it’s unfortunate that the film doesn’t pay that much attention to his return and the difficult time he and his family — wife and mother — may have had dealing with his frail health. We know he was a famous man back home already and that, shorter after his return. the Presidency of Madras bestowed him with a generous stipend that allowed the now sick Ramanujan to provide for his family and at the same have the leisure to focus on his research. But still, a little bit of light on his final days would have been a more dignifying ending. After all, he was as much a genius at home before his departure to England as he continued to be after his return to Madras — the brief English intermezzo served only to give the West the pleasure of knowing him first hand.
And here probably the greatest weakness of the film. Its ending gives the impression that Ramanujan only existed while he was visible to the eyes of the West. A powerful scene in the film actually depicts this sad fact. In that scene we see a bruised Ramanujan — he has just been beaten by English trumpists who told him to go back to the place he has come from — recriminating his mentor precisely for his inability to see him.
We don’t know if the two men ever had a moment like that but I suspect that should it had happened, Hardy would have been as amazed and indignant as his character was. As another student reminds Ramanujan during dinner, Hardy’s origins were as foreign and uncommon as those of his pupil. He was the son of poor school teachers from the skirts of London, not the child of privilege so common in the British Oxbridge enclave. Hardy got there on his own merit and out of hard work and perseverance, just as Ramanujan did. And he was always seen by many of his peers with the same condescending sense of superiority and disregard Ramanujan recriminates Hardy of showing towards him.
Unfortunately, the film misses an opportunity to do right on Ramanujan. At the end, we continue to see him through Hardy. The Indian exists only as a reflection on Hardy’s eyes.