In The Argumentative Indian, the documentary named after Amartya Sen’s best-selling collection of essays, there is a telling moment during an interview with economist Kaushik Basu where Sen, the Nobel Laureate economist and philosopher, was asked to describe his childhood. He described how he was born in his maternal grandparents’ house in Shantiniketan before pausing, trying to draw a sociological explanation of why children in India are born in their mother’s parents’ house — “I don’t think the women’s family trusted the in-laws to be sufficiently caring of the daughter. That’s my theory, but anyway…” — and then moving on with his story. It is telling because it lays bare for a second the distracted, eclectic, curious nature of his mind. A story is never just a story, but an excuse to mine for meaning — sociological, political, philosophical, and economic. It’s the roving mind of the gifted.
It is also the reason for his renewed optimism. In 2017, when he is interviewed again by Basu, the world is very different from the one he gained his bearings in. When Basu asked him about this optimism in the face of a fascist state, he noted that wherever there is a problem, there is a solution, and a very important part of finding the solution is articulating the problem. It is hopeful, if a little naive to believe that, especially in a world where articulating the problem is the problem — censorship, jail time without bail, disappearances — but it is easy to forgive platitudes from the mouth of a laureate who has given us frameworks to think about poverty, famine, violence, identity, the Indian Civilization’s argumentative architecture, and modernism, among other things.
This documentary, in fact, could not release in 2018 because the CBFC, which was then headed by Pahlaj Nihalani, had reportedly asked director Suman Ghosh to beep out some words and phrases used by Sen in the film — “cow”, “Gujarat”, “Hindu India” and “Hindutva view of India”.
It is true that in 1998, he won the Nobel Prize for his work on “social choice, welfare measurement and poverty” — a highly technical study, filled with functions, aggregations, assumptions, and ultimately, a neat theory. But his fame rests on his rigorous and articulate jostling with a variety of subjects, most pressing of which is the Indian civilization and its contemporary malaise. It is also what brought him the most ire, including having his ancestral home being listed by the Visva-Bharati University as illegal, earlier this year. This documentary, in fact, could not release in 2018 because the CBFC, which was then headed by Pahlaj Nihalani, had reportedly asked director Suman Ghosh to beep out some words and phrases used by Sen in the film — “cow”, “Gujarat”, “Hindu India” and “Hindutva view of India”. Ghosh refused and after Nihalani’s sacking, the film was cleared without any cuts.
The documentary merely coasts through Sen’s intellectual achievements, excising his personal life entirely, to give a concise, compelling snapshot of the mind. It is, for the most part, Kaushik Basu interviewing Sen, first in the early 2000s, and 15 years later in 2017. Basu’s line of questioning jumps — from his birth, to his self-diagnosis of cancer at the age of 18, to Presidency, to Cambridge, to Nobel, to being trolled by BJP war-rooms, to, finally, his feelings about death. His mother shows up briefly, noting as an aside his first marriage. Later, he is shown with his wife walking down Cambridge tar. But that’s about it. There is very little distinguishing this documentary from a rigorous, patchwork interview.
But I sense there is a reason for Sen’s unwillingness to delve into the personal. One of Sen’s most insistent qualities is his inability to be indulgent with words and feelings. When Basu pushes him to speak of how the flood of radiation to get rid of the cancer in his mouth changed him, Sen is reluctant to speak of it in the stilted modern language of growth-change-catharsis. He notes that he is too “contaminated”, not sufficiently distanced from his cancer to be able to tell us exactly how it affected him. It’s the same gripe some critics have had with his recently-released memoir — its inability to dig into his personal life the way Knausgård or Proust did. But Sen isn’t a novelist, without the flair for literature, or grandiose, probing sentences. He is grounded by the world and the facts it allows.
The documentary briefly snoops around the areas in Kolkata and Shantiniketan that Sen might have spent time in. This is where the viewer’s participation is tapped into, for we now begin to imagine Sen in the corridors of Presidency College, or under the banyan tree in Shantiniketan. Talking heads provide some sense of him, but these aren’t observations beyond what we already know from him, of him. There is an awkward aside where Manmohan Singh is clarifying Amartya Sen’s comments on the 1991 reform, as there are awkward shots of students in his classroom unable to concentrate on the lecture, and uneasy subjects for the camera. What is the point of this? There is little craft to speak of in this documentary, beyond its fixation on its protagonist. It might also explain the run-time — just about an hour — being not a function of economy, but rather a lack of things to say, a lack of probing, a lack of insight.
Even his relation to India is articulated with love but there is also biting cynicism. When one of his mentors at Presidency College notes that it wasn’t the college that made him who he is but that it was his move to Cambridge that provided him the grammar and language to approach Economics differently, something “which we in India failed to do,” there is a tragic undercurrent — that Sen might be of India, from India, but if anything, India was just a bare-bones scaffolding. The leap of genius was all him.