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Amartya Sen: A Life Reexamined

Author(s):Ghosh, Suman
Reviewer(s):Emmett, Ross B.

Published by EH.NET (August 2004)

Suman Ghosh, producer and director, Amartya Sen: A Life Reexamined. Distributed by First Run/Icarus Films, 2002. 56 minutes.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Ross B. Emmett, James Madison College, Michigan State University.

In 1998, the Royal Swedish Academy of Science decided to present the Bank of Sweden Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel to Amartya Sen. Sen was awarded the prize for his work in welfare economics, understood broadly enough to include his seminal contributions to social choice theory and the definition of poverty, his empirical work on famine, and his participation in the construction of the Human Development Index. Between 2000 and 2002, Suman Ghosh, a young economist completing his doctorate at Cornell University, produced this film in appreciation for his countryman’s contributions to economics, social philosophy, and India. Ghosh, who is now at Florida Atlantic University, has produced a balanced introduction to Sen’s work and an insightful look at his life.

Ghosh’s film sets out to examine Sen’s work through a documentary of his life. For the most part, the film works well: one sees important people and places in Sen’s life: his mother Amita Sen; his teacher Dhiresh Bhattacharya; Shantiniketan; some of the schools he attended; and the Master’s Lodge at Trinity College, Cambridge (which he now inhabits). We also meet several prominent Indian economists and government ministers, including Manmohan Singh, who became India’s Prime Minister after the movie was released. Other economists and philosophers also have roles in the film — Kaushik Basu is the interviewer, Ken Arrow provides commentary on (and a few criticisms of) Sen’s contributions to economic theory, and Timothy Scanlon, Sugata Bose, Emma Rothschild and Paul Samuelson make cameo appearances.

First and foremost, Ghosh’s movie is a celebration of Bengali contributions to the progress of human knowledge and reason. Sen is placed in the tradition of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and the chemist Prafulla Chandra Ray. As Bose says in the film, Tagore, Ray and Sen highlight the role of India, not as an alternative in a great “clash of civilizations” but rather as the source of another thread (perhaps competing with others, perhaps not) in the fabric of universal reason.

To illustrate the back-and-forth movement from the universal to the particular, the film alternates Sen’s contributions to universal reason with stories from his life and his contributions to India. Beginning with Sen lecturing at Cambridge on the axioms of social choice theory, the film then highlighting his contributions to economics and philosophy, interspersed with the story of his intellectual progress as he moved from India to Cambridge to Harvard and now back to Cambridge. Scenes and interviews from a West Bengal village literacy program provide the background for discussion of the UN Human Development Index and Sen’s approach to development, which draws the movie to a close.

The movie succeeds best at conveying the Indian fabric from which Sen’s life has been made. Sen’s early life and education in India are told to us by Sen himself (during an interview with Basu), and by his teacher Bhattacharya and his mother (also in interviews). The story is illustrated by family pictures and scenery from the places he lived. As the film moves to Sen’s life outside India and to the story of his intellectual progress, the treatment is less consistent, but includes the film’s most poignant moments: his early battle with cancer, his phone call to let his mother know he had won the Nobel Prize, and breaking in to his room at Trinity College in order to get the letter patent from the Queen that he needed to present at the gate when named Master of the College. Throughout, his humanity, in its brilliance and its fragility and fallibility, shines through.

Ghosh does not attempt in the film to provide a thorough investigation of Sen’s intellectual contributions to economics and philosophy. That is to his credit, one might say, because he conveys the warp and woof of Sen’s life quite effectively without it. However, if used in courses on economic development, economics and philosophy, and the history of economic thought, the film would require additional material in order to allow students to explore Sen’s work in greater detail. The film opens enough doors that invite further exploration to make this a pleasant task.

Ghosh’s re-examination of Sen provides the occasion to revisit his work, and to celebrate the Bengali contribution to the progress of human knowledge. It also reminds us that much remains to be done before “the clear stream of reason” (from the Tagore poem which closes the movie) guides human affairs.

Ross B. Emmett is Associate Professor at James Madison College, Michigan State University. Editor of Great Bubbles, The Chicago Tradition in Economics, 1892-1945, and Selected Essays by Frank H. Knight, Emmett is also an editor of the research annual Research in the History of Economic Thought and Methodology.

Subject(s):History of Economic Thought; Methodology
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):19th Century