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From Conrad to Delhi’s LSR Film Club: How Maria Couto Shaped My Life

"Those of us who were taught by her are fortunate that she touched our lives as she did," writes Ira Bhaskar.

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Hindi Female

The phone rang one afternoon in the fourth week of September 2021. A woman’s voice on the other side asked me to guess who it was. The voice didn’t sound familiar, and so I said, “I’m sorry I don’t know who this is.”

She said: “See you have completely forgotten me. I am an old friend and you have not kept up.”

I felt very guilty and curious at the same time. I couldn’t place the voice and I kept wondering who it could be and who could have called me.

I said somewhat feebly, “I am so sorry, I normally am in touch with friends … Please tell me who it is.”

And she revealed herself: “It is Mrs Couto, Ira and we have not been in touch for so long, though I know that you have come to Goa, but you have not contacted me … I won’t tell you who gave me your number.”

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'Very Few People Speak Out Now'

My heart jumped with joy, “Mrs Couto! How wonderful to hear from you. I could never have imagined that it is you … It has been so long … It is true that I have come to Goa. You must have got my number from Prof. Varun Sahni ... I have been to Goa on two or three occasions to attend meetings of a Committee that he had put me on, but it has always been for less than 24 hours because it would be in the middle of the semester and a working week, and it was not possible to get away for more time … I kept hoping that the next time I would be able to take a day off and plan ahead and come and see you … I will do that on my next visit.”

My voice trailed off and she said:

“Never mind, you do that if you can. But the reason I am calling is to say that I am so glad to read your interview that was published two days ago. I am so glad you have spoken out and said what you have said. Very few people speak out now. And it is so important to say it as it is. What terrible times we live in. And hence it is important that critical voices are heard. I am so proud of what you have done. Of course, I know that you went on to do your PhD and that you are teaching film now. It seems that our efforts from the time you were in college have borne fruit.”
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How Maria Couto Looked Out For Us

I was overwhelmed. And thanked her for her appreciation, and said that my career trajectory in Cinema Studies was really a consequence of our initiatives in the late 1970s with the Lady Shri Ram (LSR) Film Society, Projekt, that we founded together. And my intellectual positions were a result of what we learned in college from teachers like her.

Maria Couto was part of the English department of LSR College, and those of us who were taught by her are fortunate that she touched our lives as she did. And she did touch the lives of her students in many, many ways. Each one of us has our own narratives about Maria Couto that testifies to how she looked out for us, discussed issues with us outside class about what our interests were and what we were grappling with.

This was far beyond the text she taught us in class – Conrad’s Lord Jim that has stayed with many of us with its romanticism, its conflict between idealism and guilt, its lead protagonist’s grappling with his own failure and yet commitment to live by his dream of right action.

A few years later as I joined the profession and was a member of the English department at Gargi College, it was Lord Jim that I taught, among other texts, and continued to teach for several years. I attempted to give to my students what I had learnt from her about the text and hopefully more.

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How 'Projekt' Was Born

However, what Maria Couto was referring to was not Lord Jim. She saw a connection between my work in Cinema Studies and what turned out to be an exhilarating experience for me and many others – to work with her and Meenakshi Mukherjee to set up the LSR Film Society. It all began in the summer of 1976 when I happened to see Shyam Benegal’s Ankur in a film theatre in Varanasi. I am not sure why the film was running in a theatre two years after its initial release, but I was very excited to see a film that was so different from the mainstream films one had been used to seeing. I remember speaking to both Maria Couto and Meenakshi Mukherjee about the experience, and it is they who opened my eyes to the new cinema that was being made at the time, and that came to be called the Indian New Wave.

In those conversations, they spoke about so many films, all of which I wanted to see. And when I asked them how we could see them, Maria Couto replied that we should set up our own ‘Film Society’ in college. She agreed to guide those of us who were willing to work on this project and help us set up what took shape as Projekt, the LSR Film Society, the first college film society in Delhi that began to function in early September 1977.

Mrs Couto, as we called her, was the guiding spirit of Projekt, and with her firm convictions, aesthetic sensibility, administrative abilities and persuasive powers, she worked with Dr Luthra, the Principal of the college, and convinced her of the value of the idea. With this, she initiated an extremely important cultural and aesthetic movement for the college and an institutional intervention, the significance of which would become evident in the years to come. This is what Mrs Couto was like – an institution builder and one who understood and worked in the field of the arts, culture and letters, leaving her mark on all these areas, as others have pointed out.

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A Screening of Shyam Benegal's 'Bhumika'

What followed these early efforts and advice by her was solid work on writing the Constitution of the Society, the registration of the Society (under the Societies Act of India), the designing of the logo and getting the team together to run the Society, and finally, the programming for the first few weeks. It is thus that I worked with Anubha Dhar and Sameera Jain as the core team of Projekt to begin what really was a fundamentally constitutive activity that impacted the lives and futures of so many of us at LSR.

We learnt what membership drives were all about, how to source films, how to organise the screenings with the hiring of 35 mm and 16 mm film projectors (this was the celluloid era), and that included picking up films sent by the National Film Archives or other film societies from the Cargo section of the New Delhi Railway Station.

We also learnt how to organise publicity for screenings and set up discussions afterwards. Mrs Couto’s connections and her friendships with filmmakers, writers and actors helped us invite the luminaries of art cinema and the Indian New Wave to the college.

One of the highlights of her initiatives was our screening of Benegal’s Bhumika before its release and hot off the editing table. It was she who convinced Benegal to do this for the Society, even if he could not come. We screened the film and wrote enthusiastic responses to him about what the film meant to us.

The screenings on Fridays were followed by discussions on Wednesdays, and Mani Kaul, Girish Karnad, Naseeruddin Shah, M.K. Raina, Karuna Banerjee (who played Sarbojaya in Pather Panchali) were among those who came to discuss their work with us. We screened world cinema classics and a lot of films of the Indian New Wave and felt that we were part of an exciting movement and time, which it was, and which set me off on a journey that led to a PhD in Cinema Studies and to my work in the present.

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A Missed Opportunity

And this is what I meant when I was trying to say to Mrs Couto on the phone that afternoon in September that she had had a deep influence on me at a very formative phase in my life – something that she brushed aside as she wanted to talk about my interview. She was so appreciative of the interview in which, while speaking of the new historical films that have been made since 2017, I said that Muslims have been demonised, Hindu and Rajput kings glorified, and the Hindu majoritarian ideological discourses of these films seem to subvert the founding ideals of our independence in the service of the communalised political discourse of the contemporary. She felt it was urgent for all of us who understand the textures and discourses of the political discourses of today to intervene in whatever way we could.

It was an acknowledgement that I did not expect, and coming from a beloved teacher, an elegant and passionate human being committed to the idea of a civilised, layered multicultural polity that needed our struggles to defend it, it touched me in a way that made me commit to what she represented even more fiercely at a time that all that we cherish seems so threatened.

When I said to her that I will see her on my next trip to Goa, and I wanted to connect with her again, I believed that I would. I am not sure she did. And since it was not to be, I am filled with deep regret at having missed the opportunity of catching up with her life, of sharing her work, her ideas and my responses to her books, and of discussing the contemporary with her. As I heard of her leaving us, all I could think of in the midst of grieving was why I did not make time. An extra day was all it would have taken; why did I not push my classes and stay back on the few occasions that I went to Goa, why did I think that there would be time? I know now that one never knows if there will be time.

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The Need to Commit to What We Value

Like so many others who have written about you, Mrs Couto, I am proud of not only who you were and what you represent but also of the impact that you had in deeply constitutive ways on me and my life that followed our connection in the late 1970s. And I do believe, like you did, that we need to commit to what we value about our diverse and plural world and I would like to rediscover you through your work, through your writings, through what you have represented of and for Goa, and through the impact you have had on your students, each of whose lives you touched in such compassionate ways.

Will I be able to make up for not seeing you before you left? I am not sure that I ever will. I can only commit to taking forward all that you taught us in class and outside of it, and by being the passionate person you were.

(Ira Bhaskar is Professor of Cinema Studies at the School of Arts & Aesthetics, Jawaharlal Nehru University. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Topics:  Delhi   Movies   Cinema 

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