‘‘The Argumentative Indian’’

Abhijit Ghosh-Dastidar

Suman Ghosh’s ‘‘The  Argumentative Indian’’ (English, 60 mins, colour, 2002/2017) is on the Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, with copious references to Sen’s ‘‘Collective Choice and Social Welfare’’ (1970/2017) and ‘‘The Argumentative Indian’’ (2005). The film has debut a class room in Cornell University, where Sen is teaching Kenneth Arrow’s ‘‘Impossibility Theorem’’ (1951/52). The domain of the function is unrestricted. Manmohan Singh observes that Sen is in the classical tradition of political economy. Paul Samuelson describes Sen as an economist with a heart. Ghosh raises questions to Sen, and profound answers follow. In welfare economics, preferences are governed by individuals, who create a social judgement. Social choice and the measurement of inequality are together. Besides a vibrant diversity of different lifestyles and intellectual activity, the numerous locations where Sen grew up and studied as in Manikganj, Dhaka, Shantiniketan, Presidency College, Calcutta, Cambridge University, London and Harvard., create a visually rich exploration, of everyday phenomena.

Shantiniketan exemplified peace. Dhiresh Bhattacharjee, Sen’s former Professor at Presidency College, emphasises that Sen regularly visited tribal villages around Shantiniketan, distributed medicine and helped the pastoral. Lines of Communication connect different clusters of Rabindranath Tagore, Satyajit Ray and Sen. When afflicted with oral cancer at age eighteen, Sen plunged into self study of the illness and self diagnosis. Mother Amita Sen reminiscenses that she had handed son, Amaryta to God, when he was eighteen years old. Sen was appointed Master of Trinity College, Cambridge by the Queen of England. He continued with his abiding interests in social choice and welfare economics, the various interests of society, and the problems on famine, poverty and ineuqallity. The Human Development Index fought with the Gross National Product of a country.

Sen never liked the World Bank, which considered subsidised food, as in Sri Lanka, as interference with the market. Economist Mabibul Haq of Pakistan was Sen’s friend, Manmohan Singh’s economic reforms of 1992 were inadequate, and did not engage with education and micro-credit. India has rationalist traditions. Sen never aimed to being solely a philosopher, and never strived to separate morals, epistemology and knowledge. At age 11/12, Sen had the opportunity of sitting at the feet of Mohandas Gandhi in Shantiniketan of 1944-45. The book ‘‘Argumentative Indian’’ was about  India, and understanding of the country. The grandness of vision leads to an integrated picture. Gautam Buddha fortified his teachings with arguments. Ancient Greek culture was combined with arguments. So were the Vedas. Sen has never been indifferent to death and mortality. The educational trust ‘‘Pratichi’’, Sen sitting cross legged on the ground, and a host of children looking at the camera smiling remain in the foreground of the visual narrative, which is inter-spersed with quotes from Tagore, Rabindra sangeet and music by Bethoven and Handel.

The dramatic heart of Suman Ghosh’s dow-feature springs from the affectionate relationship between professor and student, bound by windmilling enthusiasm and warm remembrance. Sen’s feelings and the convictions of other great economists are expressed. The film script does not become a visual, polemical, didactic discourse. Great minds are brought into expressions, observations and statements. The script approaches the subject through interviews. Questions are raised by Ghosh and Kaushik Basu, to which Sen answers. The images record the spoken word, and have the ability to transmit ideas, possibly change the mind of the viewer, and educate viewers not acquainted with the ‘‘rational choice’’ of economics. The sequences filmed overseas in class rooms and outdoors have a buoyancy in camera shuffling. The film interviews are far too static in fixed frames, without camera movements. Gentle forward movement of the camera as part of distancing, scarcely compensates for the near total of absence of shots and reverse shots. In Ghosh’s film the camera remains a recorder of interviews, without any shifting vantage to rework the images.

Vol. 50, No.38, Mar 25 - 31, 2018