The Man Behind The Man Who Knew Infinity

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Robert Kanigel is the author of The Man Who Knew Infinity, the book on which the movie of the same name is based. In April 2016, before the movie was released, he spoke to Bhāvanā from his home in Baltimore, USA.

Robert Kanigel Courtesy Michael Lionstar

NR: You say in the Prologue to your book that “Ramanujan’s life might seem the stuff of cinema.” There have indeed been several documentaries and movies made on his story, including here in India, but why did it take so long for a Hollywood movie to be made?

RK: [Laughs] They couldn’t come up with the money! Matt Brown is the director and the screenwriter [of The Man Who Knew Infinity], and he was the one who approached me in 2004, I think. Before that, several other people had approached me and said, “Oh, we’d love to make a movie out of your book.” And I was delighted, of course. Yet nothing ever happened. People just disappeared.

Matt Brown, however, showed up. And he put the book under “option”, which means that he alone had the right to make a movie out of it. Then, the years passed, and he worked with various other people who said that they were interested in putting up the money; but then they never did. As a result, it just took a very long time to come up with the combination of resources that would enable them to do the film. And even so, the budget for the film was significantly less than recent similar films like The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything. So even when they finally did it, it’s amazing that they did it so well with a rather limited budget to put it together.

NR: I believe there was also an effort involving Stephen Fry at some point.

RK: Yes, Stephen Fry was one of the people who had been interested in making the movie. I think—I’m not sure of this, but the way I remember it—he was pursuing it independently. In other words, he didn’t come to me for an option of the book. He was doing it on his own. But then I guess he couldn’t come up with the money.

NR: What were your first reactions on watching the movie?

RK: My first reaction was that I cried at the end, at the very end of the movie. I saw an early version of the film on a small screen with some friends of mine and we all ended up crying at the end.

NR: Even though it’s your own book…

Oh yeah, I thought the way Matt Brown did it was beautiful. Since then I’ve seen it three more times on big screens and I think it’s quite wonderful—in its own way, that’s sort of a qualification. In other words, a book is not a movie. They’re just two different genres. They’re two different forms. They have different constraints within which to work. What Matt did was to emphasize one part of the story—that is, the relationship between Ramanujan and G.H. Hardy. So that the movie becomes the story of an unusual friendship more than anything else. And given that, I think he did a beautiful job. Every time I’ve seen it, audiences have greeted the movie with sustained applause. There are obviously ways in which there are little departures from facts, but I don’t think there are substantial departures.

CSA: Did you cry at any point while you were writing the book? Was watching the movie an experience quite different?

RK: The movie experience was quite different. But there was one moment, some time after finishing the book, when I came back to read the ending of it again. That’s the section where Hardy is speaking about Ramanujan, long after his death, at Harvard. And he talks about his friend Ramanujan. That really…somehow, I guess I was in the right mood or the wrong mood—I got a little tearful at that point.

NR: I think that is an experience which all your readers shared. Quite honestly, I think your book has made a difference in the lives of many people. Certainly, both for me and for Aravinda, who translated your book to Kannada.1

RK: What was it like translating it, for you, Aravinda?

CSA: It was a very enriching experience. The part where you talk about his time in India, the first couple of chapters, were a little easier to translate because they had the Indian ethos and I could put it in Kannada a bit more comfortably. The whole experience was really moving.

The Man Who Knew Infinity (cover) by Robert Kanigel

NR: Coming back to the movie—were you involved, in any way, with the making of the movie? Did you work closely with Matt Brown on the script?

RK: I worked closely with him at the very beginning. Then, he went off in his own direction, which is what I expected him to do. I saw a very early draft [of the script] maybe five or six years ago. Over the years, it’s changed of course. I did not keep up with the early drafts. And then when he was doing the film, there came a time when he calls me up and says “Rob, I think I need a mathematician.” I gave him a list of five mathematicians who I thought might be able to help him and Ken Ono turned out to be the one.

And then I saw some of the shooting. I didn’t go to India. But I saw some of the shooting at Trinity College, Cambridge. That was very exciting, as you might expect.

So we kept up with each other periodically. But it was his movie—he made it, he did what he wanted—and I think he did a wonderful job.

NR: You said the movie was about both Hardy and Ramanujan. That’s what your book was too. It’s almost a dual biography in some sense.

RK: That’s right.

NR: So would you say that spirit is carried over to the movie as well?

RK: Even more so. If you think about it, you’ve only got an hour and a half. So you have to zero-in on one aspect. And I think Matt very effectively zeroed-in on Ramanujan’s five years in England.

NR: Does the movie incorporate material which is not in your book, or is it based entirely on your book? Does it use other sources, additional documents?

RK: I’m almost sure that he did turn to other sources. At various times, I loaned him books; for instance, K. Srinivasa Rao has a book about Ramanujan where he’s collected a lot of documents. I sent Matt a whole bunch of materials that I had on Ramanujan, that I had used. Then I think he turned to Ken Ono and Manjul Bhargava. Also, the mother of Devika Bhise, who plays Janaki [Ramanujan’s wife] in the film, functioned as a sort of cultural consultant on Indian practises.

By the way, Arundhati Nag, who plays Ramanujan’s mother Komalatammal, hasn’t been getting as much attention as I think she deserves. I think she did an incredible job of playing Ramanujan’s mother. She is such a combination of fierce possessiveness, of possessing her son; then there’s an antagonism, or discomfort, with Janaki. And she plays it so beautifully, I was really stunned that she hasn’t gotten more attention. I think if she were to win a supporting actress award or something, that would be wonderful.

NR: Ramanujan’s mother was one of the main characters in your book as well. The driving force behind Ramanujan, in some sense.

RK: That’s true. She appears in the book, but I think in the movie she…

NR: She was able to carry it off?

RK: She carried it off, exactly. You feel her living force. It’s really quite remarkable.

“I think it’s important for somebody who does intellectual or artistic work, to have around him somebody who he is very “connected” with”

NR: Towards the end of your book, you talk about the “gang of three”—Bruce Berndt, George Andrews, Richard Askey—and you say it was left to them to “restore Ramanujan’s reputation.” Why do you think it was left to these three American mathematicians more than those in India to throw fresh light on Ramanujan and his work?

RK: I don’t think I can answer that. I think I would have to be more knowledgeable about the conditions in India in the 1970s and 80s, to be able to say.

A friend of mine here in Baltimore is an artist. Not a famous one, but she does murals. She was telling me how she’s unknown in Baltimore. But all she has to do is go over to Cleveland or Chicago, where she did a mural, and all of a sudden, she was the great muralist from Baltimore from their point of view. So it was outside her home community where she was taken more seriously or more respected. Or they made more of a fuss about her.

I’m not claiming that that’s the reason—I’m sure it’s much more complicated and the social conditions in India are different from those in the United States. The conditions of mathematicians in India are probably different from mathematicians in the U.S. But my initial answer applies—I really can’t answer the question.

CSA: In this connection, I would like to add something which came to my mind. K. Chandrasekharan, while at TIFR in the 1960s, had published the notebooks of Ramanujan.

RK: So that preceded the discovery of the so-called Lost Notebook?

CSA: That’s right.

RK: Well, my book came about in a strange way. I had never heard of Ramanujan in 1988. An editor who had no mathematical training, no mathematical experience whatsoever, showed this very small article in the New York Times that corresponded to the hundredth anniversary of Ramanujan’s birth. Who can explain the workings of fate, how these things happen? Her interest in the bare bones of the story led to this route that we can’t explain—my book, and that in turn led to the movie, and it’s very strange.

NR: I think when you first arrived in India, in Madras, you took an autorickshaw and you ran into a fellow passenger who turned out to be the grandson of Narayana Iyer, who had worked with Ramanujan at the Madras Port Trust…

RK: Unbelievable. I mean, if somebody wrote a novel with that scene, you would say, “Oh, the novel is flawed. It couldn’t possibly happen.” But it’s nonfiction. It did happen!

“The way I see the movie, it’s about friendship”

NR: Has Ramanujan’s story affected you personally? Of course, you’ve written the book and now it’s been made into a movie. But on a personal level?

RK: I suppose in this way: When I came to India, in 2011, to give a series of lectures that were built around this idea of “Ramanujan as Everyman.” The “everyman” idea often gets a capital “E”—it’s like a symbol or a representation of the average man. For some reason, it’s been very important to me to get across the idea that some of the same obstacles that Ramanujan faced, are faced by everybody. And recently, in Baltimore, there have been racial tensions—there’s a lot of poverty, a lot of people who don’t get the opportunity that they need in order to prosper, to do well, to economically or intellectually or socially advance. I’ve often thought of the story of Ramanujan in that sense. Right here in America, which in general is a rich country, there are many pockets of terrible poverty and injustice. It’s hard not to think of all these Ramanujans right here in America, who are not getting what they need in order to advance.

So that’s one aspect. The other, I think, is the friendship between Ramanujan and Hardy. It’s nice to be surrounded by your wife, your friends, and your colleagues. But it’s probably even more important, I think, for somebody who does intellectual or artistic work, to have around him somebody who he is very “connected” with — it’s got an intellectual component and it’s got an emotional component, together and inseparable. I’ve thought about that a lot in my relationship with my wife, who gives me much of that kind of combination of intellectual and emotional connection. When I think of Ramanujan and Hardy, I think of the central importance of that kind of relationship, at least to some people — certainly to me.

CSA: Given that you mentioned the racial tensions in Baltimore… I just remembered that Ken Ono himself has written a book about his experiences and how Ramanujan has influenced him. So, in some sense, the story of Ramanujan that you brought out may have given a voice to people who have gone through similar experiences, perhaps.

CSA:In the book, apart from Hardy, you also brought out the role of E.H. Neville, who was quite instrumental in persuading Ramanujan to travel to Cambridge and getting him there. When Ramanujan arrived in England, Neville and his wife made a home for him, in some sense. So is Neville’s role, that you brought out so beautifully in the book, depicted in the movie?

RK: No, it’s not. I talked to Matt about that. He told me how in early versions of the script, Neville was very much part of it. But when there’s so much to get across… that was one of the things that didn’t make it into the movie. I felt bad about that—I agree with you, and I appreciate your close reading of my book. I agree that Neville did play an important role and I think he was important to Ramanujan and I thought it was a shame that he didn’t make it into the movie. But on the other hand, I understand Matt’s decision. Sometimes you need to keep a very close focus on the central story, which of course is Ramanujan and Hardy.

CSA: Absolutely. I can understand. It’s just that I remembered that because you brought out the question of intellectual and emotional company. I think Neville was perhaps playing a role somewhere in between.

RK: That’s right.

NR: To quote again from your book, you say that “Ramanujan’s life can be made to serve as parable for almost any lesson you want to draw from it… model, inspiration, warning, instructive case history.” With this Hollywood movie, what parable does Ramanujan’s story convey now? Does the story take on a new layer of meaning, do you think?

RK: The way I see the movie, it’s about friendship. In that sense, it’s a little bit simpler. The movie makes a lot about the distinction between mathematical intuition, and the requirement for mathematical proof and rigour. Which is certainly part of the book, and it became in the movie quite central. That tension came to stand for the difference between Ramanujan and Hardy as people. But I’d say in the movie, it all came down to—I’m not sure there’s a parable in there—a strange and wonderful and peculiar friendship that didn’t have many of the conventional hallmarks, or doesn’t seem like a regular friendship. But it was. Just a little odd—or a lot odd [Laughs].

CSA: It was also new for Hardy, who was used to one kind of research process—rigorous proofs and so on—and then he meets someone like Ramanujan who had a very different take on creativity. Hardy also acknowledges this in several different ways. Does the movie also bring out the idea that there could be different forms of creativity?

RK: I think so; definitely. I think that’s a mainstay of the film. Hardy is by no means presented as god or superior, or anything like that. We see his limitations, as much as we see Ramanujan’s limitations. In fact, one review of the movie said, “How unusual for a movie where, in some ways, we don’t like either of the main characters.” [Laughs] Ramanujan and Hardy both clearly have their weaknesses. Hardy doesn’t know what to make of Ramanujan.

It would be interesting—I don’t know if this has been done—for a historian of mathematics to compare the mathematics that Hardy did up until 1913, with the mathematics that he did after 1920, and look for any patterns and perhaps, who knows, influences from the style of doing mathematics that Ramanujan brought to his life. That would be very interesting. I don’t know whether you could do it, but in principle it might be an interesting research topic.

NR: Is this the final word on Ramanujan? Do you think there’s enough material for a new biography?

RK: Oh yes, certainly. Ramanujan is such a rich topic that I’m sure that ten, twenty or thirty years later somebody else will do another biography of Ramanujan, bringing new material and new insights that I wasn’t able to bring. In part because he would be another person, and in part because new information has been revealed in the years since I wrote the book. Somebody once figured out that the American president Abraham Lincoln has had hundreds of biographies, and Isaac Newton has had many biographies. There’s no such thing as a definitive biography. It’s a process, it’s a work in being, a collective work in process.

CSA: You have written many other books, but, certainly after this movie, you’re going to be identified most as the author of The Man Who Knew Infinity, as Ramanujan’s biographer. I’m sure you’ve had a similar level of involvement when you wrote the other books too.

RK: I think that often happens with authors, that even though somebody spends an entire life writing books, one or maybe two turn out to be the ones that he’s most remembered for. I think that’s how it’s going to turn out with The Man Who Knew Infinity. What am I going to do? [Laughs]


  1. Published by the National Book Trust, isbn 9788123770437

C.S. Aravinda is at the TIFR Centre for Applicable Mathematics, Bangalore, and is the Chief Editor of Bhāvanā.

Nithyanand Rao is a science journalist based in Bangalore, and a Contributing Editor of Bhāvanā.