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The Argumentative Indian: Insight into Amartya Sen’s genius

The Argumentative Indian
The Argumentative Indian

Film: The Argumentative Indian

Director: Suman Ghosh

Rating: ***1/2

It is a miracle that this vital documentary throwing light on one of India’s brightest minds ever made into theatres. Miracle, because the film’s architect and director Suman Ghosh (whose feature film “Nobel Chor” fictionalizing the real-life theft of Rabindranath Tagore’s Nobel prize) had to fight a long and hard battle with the Indian censor board to stop some hard-hitting comments on India’s politics from being cut.

It is also a miracle to see Amartya Sen reach the age of 84 when 66 years ago, the doctors had given him only five years to live after he was detected with mouth cancer. We hear Sen’s mother speak of that miracle — of her son surviving a serious death to become one of India’s most perspicuous minds. We also hear Sen describe the self-diagnosis that he undertook and which probably saved his life.

What comes across in the hour-long documentary is the Nobel laureate’s tenacity and obstinacy. He does bend but you won’t catch him tripping over his thoughts or contradiction his own views. He is not immovable in his opinions either.

The documentary is essentially a two-part interview conducted by the famed economist Kaushik Basu, conducted with a 15-year gap between the two conversations. Although the conversations per se are illuminating and deeply reflective of Sen’s intellect, I craved for more insight into his heart rather than focusing almost entirely on the mind.

Sen’s mother comes forward with her cursory thoughts and she is especially disarming as she recalls her son’s phone call about winning the Nobel prize. We see Sen receiving the Nobel prize early in the narrative. Just why vital events from his life occupy a particular place in the documentary is not explained.

But where are Sen’s two daughters? We would have loved to see them speak of their father. While the documentary sheds illuminating light on the Nobel laureate’s academic pursuits, there isn’t enough on his other roles in life. This perhaps is a conscious omission indicative of the lacuna that all intellectual minds are familiar with.

A life so devoted to the pursuit of knowledge tends to preclude domestic duties. What we see in the documentary is the academician, the teacher, the philosopher and the intellectual, but seldom the man in his domestic environment.

Towards the end, the discourse veers towards, what else, mortality. But Sen seems uncomfortable discussing that subject. He is far more expansive talking on his growing up years in Dhaka, and on Mahatma Gandhi.

“I am not a nationalist. But I am still quite proud of my country,” Sen says at one point of his conversation.

It is a defining moment in the discourse that tells us why a mind as sorted as Amartya Sen needs to be stubborn on national issues.

You can only aspire to greatness if you shun mundane roles.

“The Argumentative Indian” is a documentation of a life careening towards immortality. Not to be missed by any Indian.

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