A scathing criticism of capitalism and ‘development’ at the cost of culture, Merchant-Ivory Productions’s ‘In Custody’ is a tragi-comical look at an India at the crossroads of change

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The famed Merchant-Ivory Productions is associated with some of the finest British classics, such as A Room with a View (1985), Howards End (1992), The Remains of the Day (1993). The titular duo behind these films and many other gems from their stable were James Ivory and his partner, Ismail Merchant. Ever since their first collaboration in 1963, The Householder, Ivory directed most of the films, and Merchant was content donning the producer’s hat.

But Merchant couldn’t evade the directing bug for long, and in 1983, he succumbed to it by creating the docudrama, The Courtesans of Bombay. The bug bit him again in 1993, and out came his finest film, In Custody (Muhafiz). Based on Anita Desai’s eponymous novel, which was shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 1984, In Custody is a heartfelt ode from Merchant to his mother-tongue, Urdu, and the syncretic culture of India that shaped his formative years.

A poet in his twilight years

The National Award-winning film puts the spotlight on a legendary Urdu poet, Nur Shahjehanabadi (Shashi Kapoor), who is living a washed-up life at his old ‘haveli’ in Bhopal. Deven (Om Puri), a college professor from Mirpur, gets the opportunity to interview his favourite poet for an Urdu Magazine, edited by his friend Murad (Tinnu Anand).

Ironically, despite being an ardent lover of Urdu and its poetry, Deven teaches Hindi literature in his college to make ends meet. There are very few takers for Urdu, as the medieval-era language is breathing its last in a slowly dying culture, making way for modernisation in technology, language and lifestyle. And, so is the great poet Nur, who is at the fag end of life.

Keeping the company of admirers who are more interested in scrounging off liquor and biryanis at his expense than listening to his poetry, Nur plays along and whiles away his time by making merry with them. Deven finds it extremely challenging to record Nur’s spoken words as the poet has been reduced to a shadow of his former self, and is least interested in being interviewed.

A sublime performance by Shashi Kapoor

Adding to Deven’s woes is an incompetent technician, who has accompanied him to operate the tape-recorder, which fails to record the few Urdu verses recited by Nur. Moments like these in the film lend it some comic respite in an otherwise tragic subject. In one such scene, Nur jokingly explains to the young technician about the difference between prose and poetry. He states, “If a woman gets wet till the thighs, it is called prose, and if she gets wet till the belly, it’s called poetry!”

Shashi Kapoor as the ailing and bitter Nur delivers his career’s best performance, which is nothing short of extraordinary. Extremely obese, frail, and worn-out, Nur personifies the decay and neglect of Urdu that once enjoyed a reverential status in the country. It’s heartbreaking to experience Kapoor’s grief-stricken face, eyes, and voice, as he gets deep into the skin of his character. His diction, pronunciation, voice modulation, and recital of the Urdu verses and poems are pitch-perfect. Every word uttered by him is steeped in deep emotions that do justice to the sensitivity possessed by true artists/poets. Such is the greatness of Kapoor’s sublime performance that it overshadows the acting brilliance of Om Puri.

The old way of life makes way for the new

The Merchant-Ivory duo were renowned for their superlative taste in aesthetics and all things artsy. The music of In Custody bears this high-quality stamp, as Ustad Zakir Hussain and Ustad Sultan Khan created some enchanting ghazals, using Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s poetry. In fact, all the poems and verses recited by Nur in the film have been sourced from Faiz’s oeuvre. The film opens with Nur reciting Faiz’s ‘Aaj ek harf ko phir dhoondta phirta hai khayaal’ (Today, thought keeps searching for a letter again), in his affectionate voice, which is later followed by Suresh Wadkar singing the remaining verses.

The ghazal blends the sounds of santoor, sarangi, and tabla to evoke a soothing and sweet feeling. Then, there are two other beautiful ghazals, ‘Raaz-e-ulfat chhupa ke dekh liya’ (I’ve seen what it takes to conceal love’s secret) and ‘Ae jazba-e-dil gar main chahoon’ (O passion of the heart, if I desire), sung by Kavita Krishnamurthy, who forms the playback voice of Imtiaz Begum (Shabana Azmi), Nur’s second wife. In the film, these poems have originally been composed by Nur, but Imtiaz performs them in front of an audience without crediting her husband. The final Faiz poem, ‘Aaj bazaar mein pa bajolan chalo’ (Today, let’s walk in public wearing our shackles), rendered beautifully by Hariharan, embodies the melancholic weight of the film.

In Custody is a tragi-comical and regretful look by Ismail Merchant at an India which is at the crossroads of change. The old traditional way of life is making way for the new modern life. The death/neglect of an ancient culture — its artists, language, and architecture — is symbolised in the film’s end through the breaking down of an old ‘haveli’ belonging to Deven’s senior colleague. In its place, a multi-storeyed shopping complex with restaurants, shops and offices will be built. A scathing criticism of capitalism, so-called development and technology at the cost of arts and culture, this classic from Merchant-Ivory Productions is an underrated and overlooked masterpiece.

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