Devika Bhise on playing math genius Ramanujan’s wife Janaki, being enamoured with Jeremy Irons and loving Hrithik!
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- Published 4.09.14
Devika Bhise, who has done bit roles in a few Holly films, dabbled in Broadway and is a trained dancer and singer, has landed a biggie. The Indian-American actress plays Janaki, the wife of 19th century mathematics great Srinivasa Ramanujan in the Matt Brown-directed film The Man Who Knew Infinity, starring Slumdog Millionaire man Dev Patel as Ramanujan and Jeremy Irons as his mentor GH Hardy. t2 caught up with Devika days before she started shooting for the film in Chennai.
How did you land the role in The Man Who Knew Infinity?
I graduated from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore under the mentorship of John Astin who was the original Gomez in The Addams Family, among a 100 other projects on screen and Broadway. While I was there, I acted in a play called The Partition by Ira Hauptman. That’s the play which is in the book (The Man Who Knew Infinity) on which this film is based. The director (Matt Brown), while researching for the film, came upon this play and that’s how I met him. I went through a series of auditions that carried on for a couple of months. The part came to me a few weeks ago.
But you didn’t play Janaki in The Partition…
No I didn’t, because Janaki isn’t a character in the play. The only female character in the play is the goddess Namagiri who is Ramanujan’s inspiration… a goddess who “feeds” him math formulae on his tongue. But the film is based more on the book and so Janaki has a significant presence in it. But there are parallels between Namagiri and Janaki… in the play, the goddess is shown to care for Ramanujan almost like a wife would.
Besides the book, how much information is there about Janaki and her role in Ramanujan’s life otherwise?
I have read a lot online about things she did after Ramanujan’s death. She lived up to quite an old age. The best thing is that while I was at Cambridge, I got to meet Robert Kenigal, the author of the book The Man Who Knew Infinity. Kenigal had actually met Janaki before her death and he gave me really good insights into the kind of person she was. She was extremely philanthropic and adopted a foster son and gave a lot to her community. She was a woman with incredible strength of character... which I think will help me portray her very well… she was a very strong woman.
What aspects of Janaki are you planning to play up in your portrayal of her?
Despite the fact that this was more than a hundred years old, what struck me the most about Janaki is that she was a woman extremely ahead of her times. She was a modern woman who had the strength to let her husband go outside the country to pursue his passion even though it meant she would have to live without him. The way she came into her own and supported herself and also helped out the community after his death is also very commendable.
How has it been interacting with Dev Patel...
I actually went to Cambridge a couple of days ago to meet the cast and crew and just to see how the sets have come up and to get a feel of the film. I spent quite a bit of time with Dev… he’s lovely and warm as a person.
And Jeremy Irons?
I was, of course, extremely excited to meet Jeremy Irons who is one of my acting icons. I was enamoured… and he was so kind and friendly and so open.
Can you tell us a bit about your background?
I was always inclined towards acting. I started learning Bharatanatyam at the age of four from my mother who is a trained dancer and was the first student of (classical dance exponent) Sonal Mansingh and I have also trained under Sonalji. Everyone who meets me goes: ‘Oh, how do you know Sanskrit shlokas and ‘How do you know Hindustani classical music?’ But the truth is that all classical forms are related to each other… and I studied both Indian classical music and dance. I started at a very young age with singing and dancing and by the time I was 13, I got into hip-hop and jazz and salsa, just to expand my range.
Has the scope to play different roles in Hollywood opened up more for Asian actors than say 10 years ago?
Yeah, absolutely. I am lucky enough to be in this industry at this time because now there are roles for all kinds of actors. India, over the last couple of years, has become huge in Hollywood and there is movie after movie made on India and its culture. My work has been described in Hollywood as “ethnically ambiguous” (laughs)… that’s the official term… that’s because I can play a Hispanic, Indian, Iranian, Italian… it’s a whole world of options and opportunities for us in Hollywood now.
Now that you will be in India for a bit, will we see you scouting Bollywood for roles?
Born and raised in the States, I obviously will lean more towards Hollywood, but I have my favourites in Bollywood. I love Lagaan and Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge…. I saw Kahaani as well, which I thought was really great. Of course, if I got something that I can do justice to, I will take it up. But Hollywood is more on my radar right now.
But I would love to work with Aamir Khan and Vidya Balan. And of course Hrithik… who doesn’t love Hrithik Roshan?! (Laughs)
D FOR DEVIKA
Lives in: New York City
Trained in: Bharatanatyam, Hindustani classical music, jazz, hip-hop and salsa
Films: The Accidental Husband (Uma Thurman-Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Anamika: The Glorious Past
Loves: Chocolate, yoga, dogs, fashion, marine biology and... Hrithik Roshan!