Amartya Sen: A Life Reexamined (review)
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Amartya Sen: A Life Reexamined by Suman Ghose. 2003. VHS/DVD, 56 min., color. Available from First Run/Icarus Films, New York, NY, U.S.A.

Amartya Sen: A Life Reexamined is a documentary about the life and work of the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen. Rich and moving, the nearly hour-long film focuses on Sen's contributions to the field of welfare economics. The film provides an overview of a vast span of his engagements and succeeds in contextualizing his thoughts and propositions. The discussions within the film guide the viewer to a better understanding of the dynamics of economic development, regarding which Sen's arguments have identified the complexities and intricacies of social choice(s). As the film proceeds, it indicates Sen's thought by emulating dialogue between varied and distinct systems of reason and thinking. From such a position, one begins to appreciate some of the inadequacies of Western liberalism, and the case for expanding and resituating the understanding of economic development beyond exclusively macroeconomic measures.

The film presents interviews with a galaxy of scholars, politicians and associates who comment upon Sen's work, particularly within the ambit of Social Choice Theory, and discuss some of his independent research efforts in rural Bengal. Central in lending structure to the film is a conversation between Sen and Kaushik Basu, an economics professor at Cornell University. In this conversation, Basu inquires deeply into the evolution of Sen's thinking, traversing both intellectual and personal trajectories. Rather than being interpretive or explanatory, the conversation is deconstructive, so that in addition to serving as documentation, it also aids in situating Sen's ideas within a larger historical and socio-political context. Through editing, this dialogue has been carefully combined with other interviews such that it serves as a delicate framework for the film, fully evoking the import of Sen's contributions and introducing the viewer to the wider philosophical and cultural implications thereof. Acutely interesting is Harvard historian Sugata Bose's succinct and lucid commentary in which he places Amartya Sen in the tradition of thinking shared by two prominent 20th-century Bengalis: Nobel Laureate and writer Rabindranath Tagore and filmmaker Satyajit Ray. Bose holds that in following this tradition, including Sen, the intellectual and cultural history of our times could be reinterpreted as being "characterized by competing and multiple universalisms," for the three thinkers attest to "lines of communication that connect different cultures." This observation is extremely useful in challenging notions of cultural distinction, innocence and orientalist sympathies, [End Page 263] besides drawing out the historical significance of Sen's contributions outside of his discipline.

The film's structure complements its insightfulness. Patiently culled facts and sustained arguments, including apt criticisms, have been combined with a recollection of Sen's background, interesting and humorous anecdotes, memories and minutiae. All these elements wedded together lend an air of ease and rescue the film from the trappings of a dense exchange that might have limited its possibilities. The film's editing, which has been noted by critics elsewhere, reflects an eye for fine and considered construction. The style and pace of the film are smooth, transitions between sequences gentle, imagery tasteful and economical, and music poignant—the manner of the film is subtle yet emphatic and parallels the grace and poise that characterize the Trinity Master's own arguments and style.

Through such a refined approach, the film transcends the gross level and dives deeper into unpacking Sen the individual in terms of his philosophical leanings, motivations and convictions. Especially interesting is a brief sequence from a 2002 lecture at Cornell University, where Sen states the need for a secular right-wing political party in India. While he promptly qualifies that he may not necessarily vote for such a party, his remark is intriguing given that he is commonly associated with the political economy approach. What makes it more noticeable is timing, in light of the recent landmark mandate marked by an anti-incumbency sentiment against the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party-led coalition, which had some of the ingredients Sen spells out in the lecture: pro-business and right-wing. This sequence is one of...


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