Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel plays self-taught mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan in a major new film charting his extraordinary story from impoverishment in South India to scholarly acclaim in England.
With Jeremy Irons as G H Hardy, the Trinity mathematician to whom Ramanujan appealed for support and recognition, The Man Who Knew Infinity chronicles their remarkable five-year collaboration during the First World War.
Together with J E Littlewood, they solved mathematical problems through novel approaches and with startling accuracy. Hardy would later write that this association ‘was the decisive event of my life.’
Directed by Matt Brown and produced by Edward Pressman, The Man Who Knew Infinity is based on the book of the same name by biographer Robert Kanigel, who said the film was ‘terrifically good.’
Rare access to Trinity was granted to the filmmakers. In August 2014 Irons and Patel could be seen in Edwardian dress pacing Great Court. Nevile’s Court was transformed into a field hospital for soldiers injured during the war.
Senior Tutor Professor Catherine Barnard said there was ‘a real buzz’ about the College during filming:
Most Fellows were very interested in what was going on, how the film was being made and the attention to detail – even the notices on the notice board were replaced by Edwardian-era versions.
There was a wonderful moment when an elderly Fellow walked right across a shot. It would have been fine and totally in keeping but for the fact that he had a modern rucksack on his back. The scene had to be reshot.
She said permission had been given for the film to be shot at Trinity in recognition of Ramanujan’s achievements and the importance of his story.
Trinity is delighted that the life of Ramanujan is being told on film, which should reach a global audience and hopefully inspire talented students around the world.
Trinity looks stunning in the film. Of course the film is not about the buildings but the people. Central to both Ramanujan and Hardy’s success is the unique collaboration they formed while at Trinity that proved so productive then – and so influential for mathematicians ever since.
The film depicts the many challenges Ramanujan faced – from racism and misunderstanding of his mathematical approach, to the English climate, cuisine and war-time shortages. Professor Barnard said:
Ramanujan’s life in Cambridge was not easy and we can’t shy away from the culture of the time. It is all the more remarkable that in his short life he overcame those challenges to produce such amazing mathematics.
That is Dev Patel’s view too says Professor Barnard, who interviewed the Indian filmstar during a break in filming.
Dev Patel was very conscious that Ramanujan would have been in awe of the buildings and other students at Cambridge and probably felt like a ‘fish out of water’, not least in forming the unlikely friendship with Hardy. But Mr Patel hoped the film would inspire students to lift their sights and aim high.
Ramanujan’s brilliance is not the only remarkable aspect of the story, says Professor Venki Ramakrishnan, Fellow of Trinity and President of the Royal Society.
Equally remarkable is how various people made this possible. Thus at Cambridge, people like Hardy and Neville not only recognized Ramanujan’s talent but went to great trouble to make it possible for him to come to Cambridge. On his part, Ramanujan overcame his own fears and orthodox Brahmin prohibition against ‘crossing the ocean’ to make the voyage.
On arrival in Cambridge in 1914, Ramanujan stayed at the Chesterton home of Trinity Fellow E H Neville and his wife Alice, who manged to find a vegetarian cookbook to prepare meals for him.
Despite the many challenges Ramanujan faced in Edwardian England, ultimately his talent flourished in Cambridge and his hard work was recognised, says Professor Ramakrishnan:
Trinity and the Royal Society should be proud that they were able to overcome the cultural prejudices of this time and recognise Ramanujan’s talent and contributions by electing him a Fellow to each of their institutions.
The Man Who Knew Infinity is on general release in the UK from 8 April, and in India and the US on 29 April.
Listen to Trinity Fellow, Professor Béla Bollobás, reflecting on Ramanujan’s significance.
Read the Wren Library blog on Ramanujan’s papers.
Could you be the next Ramanujan? The Spirit of Ramanujan search is on until 20 May 2016.