The first narrative feature directed by Ismail Merchant is a lament for the decline of a linguistic tradition, and perhaps of language in general. In this slow-moving, reflective, and compassionate film, the waning of Urdu--a Persian-influenced dialect of Hindi that was once India's most
important literary language--is figured in the story of a scholar's struggle to preserve the legacy of a dying poet.
Deven (Om Puri) teaches Hindi at a college in Mirpur, a town in north central India. Encountering his friend Murad (Tinnu Anand), he agrees to interview the greatest living Urdu poet, Nur Shahjehanabad, for the literary journal Murad edits. Deven finds Nur in the nearby city of Bhopal, where the
aging, gouty poet (Shashi Kapoor) lives in a ramshackle mansion surrounded by a fawning coterie of drink-sodden poetasters. Nur's domestic life is a shambles: his senior wife, Safiya (Sushma Seth), despises his younger second wife Imtiaz (Shabana Azmi), a would-be poetess who simultaneously
resents Nur's fame and decries the dissipated lifestyle that distracts him from his art.
Although Nur is reluctant to grant an interview--"Urdu is dead," he says, "here you see its corpse"--he invites Deven to return for a recital given by Imtiaz, who sings ghazals (an Urdu lyric verse form) for Nur's claque, humiliating Nur by claiming some of his verse for her own. Near death and
worried about his literary heritage, Nur offers to dictate the "scores of poems" he carries in his head. Back in Mirpur, Deven asks Urdu scholar Siddiqui (Ajay Sahni) to secure funds for a video camera; the college is only willing to part with enough to pay for an ancient reel-to-reel tape
machine. In Bhopal, Imtiaz feigns illness in order to block the recording sessions, but Safiya offers to smuggle Nur into a nearby brothel, where Deven can meet with him in peace. She demands money in exhange, and Deven must beg Siddiqui for the additional cash.
The recording sessions are a fiasco: Nur's noisy friends arrive; the poet gets drunk and recites Keats instead of his own work; the tape recorder malfunctions. As Deven prepares to leave, Imtiaz confronts him and demands that he acknowledge her as a poetess in her own right; when he refuses, she
breaks down. Back in Mirpur, Deven receives a package from Nur containing a sheaf of new verses. Nur's legacy is now "in his custody." The closing scenes are of Nur's funeral procession through Bhopal.
If the predominant tone of IN CUSTODY were slightly less elegiac and a bit more sardonic, it would be tempting to read the film as Ismail Merchant's revenge. Deven's endlessly frustrating struggle to realize another man's artistic vision--raising money, marshalling equipment, securing locations,
dealing with unexpected obstacles on the fly--unavoidably suggests the travails of Merchant's 30-year career as producer and aide-de-camp to James Ivory. Similarly, it's hard not to see Deven's futile employment of technology in the service of written literature as an ironic reflection of the
Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala mission; that is, the repackaging of high culture for easy consumption and prolonged shelf-life in an age of mechanical reproduction. And indeed, this film has little in common with Ivory's upper middle-brow commodities, aside from its first-rate production values and
nostalgic mood. Not only has Merchant eschewed time-tested "classic" source material (it's based on an excellent but little-known novel by Anita Desai) and the usual cast of tony, high-profile British actors; he's made a film about a literary tradition that most Westerners couldn't care less
about, in a language that most Westerners can't understand. Unsurprisingly, Sony Classics had no idea how to market the movie, and it became one of the lowest-grossing commercial releases of 1994.
IN CUSTODY is nonetheless elegant, keenly intelligent, and ultimately quite moving. Merchant's evident passion for Urdu is infectious; even viewers completely unfamiliar with subcontinental languages, literature, and recent cultural struggles may well begin to feel that they have some stake in
the survival of India's regional tongues. Nur's verse is persuasively represented by excerpts from the works of the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz; many of these are expertly set to music by master instrumentalists Zakir Hussain and Sultan Khan. Om Puri is sturdy as always, but Shabana Azmi--who seems to
grow more beautiful every year--steals the show, particularly during Imtiaz's anguished plea for recognition by a cultural establishment (not unlike our own) in which artistic merit is viewed as a matter of patrilineal descent. Shashi Kapoor, not long ago one of the handsomest men in world cinema,
looks more ursine, obese, and degenerate than ever--which adds a special poignance to Nur's lament, "Have I really grown so old?" (Adult situations.)
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- Released: 1994
- Rating: PG
- Review: The first narrative feature directed by Ismail Merchant is a lament for the decline of a linguistic tradition, and perhaps of language in general. In this slow-moving, reflective, and compassionate film, the waning of Urdu--a Persian-influenced dialect of… (more)