Daniel Nelson

The Argumentative Indian

The Argumentative Indian

Image by The Argumentative Indian


Questions are put by fellow academic Kaushik Basu in what is essentially a long interview plus background footage, but they are lobbed in politely to enable the gentle Sen to bat them back.

It makes for an unusually staid film though, if like me, you love the quiet, unflashy intellectual atmosphere of 1960s Calcutta you'll feel comfortably relaxed as we are taken through Sen’s formative years in Rabindranath Tagore’s ashram, Shantiniketan, to his college in Calcutta and his academic career in the US and UK ("which taught him to ask questions which we in India tended not to do").

The talking heads offering views on the Nobel laureate and his influential work on development issues are mostly thoughtful academics, too, with a one or two exceptions such as former Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh, himself batting off Sen's criticisms of his policies.

Even his cancer - "I nearly perished" - is recalled without sensation though it was clearly dramatic and formative: he diagnosed it himself aged 18 after doctors had dismissed the symptoms and says that the experience enabled him to "see myself as as an agent rather than a patient". It also checked any vanity he might have felt when he began lecturing at the London School of Economics - without teeth.

Sen produces a couple of well-polished anecdotes, such as forgetting to take the letter from the Queen when taking up the post of Master of Trinity College Cambridge, which meant the porter refused to allow him entry, leading in turn to a Daily Telegraph headline: Trinity Master knocks down the door.

His views are so quietly expressed (The Nobel Prize? "It was pleasing when it came") that you almost don't absorb them them. "I never liked the World Bank very much and thought it was responsible for a lot of ill in the world" (until John Wolfensohn took over in 1995). Initially, "I thought the Human Development Report was vulgar", in its claim to represent development in a single number. "I'm not a nationalist but I'm proud of the country." Prevention of discussion by trolls is against democracy. On being optimistic: "If there's a problem there has to be a solution."

In the final segment of the film, 15 years after the first, Sen is 83 and is a stooped, lop-sided figure. Nature is taking its relentless toll, but cannot detract from Sen's contributions, his dedicated teaching, his clear thinking and writing, on justice and violence as well as welfare economics and political science. This is a modest film that does not give a clear picture of Sen's insights or their impact, which means it will have little relevance to audiences outside an intellectual coterie that already understands his work. But it's a sincere tribute to an outstanding man.

* The Argumentative Indian is showing at the London Indian Film Festival on 27 June, 6.30pm, at the London School of Economics, Houghton Street, WC2. Info: http://londonindianfilmfestival.co.uk/london-2017/

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