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Genres: Comedy , Drama
Actors: Shashi Kapoor , Shabana Azmi , Om Puri , Sushma Seth , Neena Gupta , Tinnu Anand , Prayag Raj , Parikshat Sahni , Sagar Arya , Alakh Nandan , Yusuf Khurram , Riju Bajaj , Maza Bi , Nayeem Hafizka , Veerendra Saxena
Director: Ismail Merchant
Country: United Kingdom, India
Year: 1994
IMDB Rating: 7.1/10 (171 votes)

An editor asks Deven, a teacher who loves Urdu poetry, to interview poet Nur Shahjehanabadi, an aging whale of a man. Deven goes to Bhopal from Mirpur to meet Nur, of whom he is in awe. He finds him living with feuding wives, visited by sycophants who drink his whisky and eat his food. Deven wants to record Nur for posterity and seeks funds to buy an aged tape recorder, to bribe Safiya, the elder wife, to get Nur into a room at a brothel for a week for the recording, and to feed Nur’s pals who show up. Nur’s beautiful second wife, Imtiaz, wants to be taken seriously as a poetess. Dever dismisses her and ignores his own wife and child much as Nur does. In the end, what is preserved? Written by One of India’s renowned poets, Nur, now leads a comfortable life, surrounded by well-wishers, fellow-poets, several wives, and relatives. This is what struggling writer, Deven, expected to write about Nur when he was assigned to write about him. What he found was a grossly overweight male, surrounded by greedy friends and relatives, and three wives – one a bitter older woman, Safiya; second a neglected but talented one named Imtiaz, and the third, Sarla, a shrewd and calculating woman, who was selling Nur’s poems as her own. Will Deven’s presence initiate some change in Nur’s lifestyle, or will Deven himself become one of Nur’s lazy followers.

Film Review

While this directorial debut from Ismail Merchent leaves most westerners cold and thinking this movie to be about the dying language of Urdu its a actually the study of two characters who put their love of art above everything else and their smoldering passion is captured perfectly.Important here is to note that while the subject chosen has been Urdu poetry it could have been replaced as easily by say Indian classical music and the movie would have worked just as well. Merchent tries to capture the situation of the artist and his ardent followers juxtaposing the touching sincerity of Om Puri with that of the the poet Nurs(played by Shashi Kapoor) bunch of sycophants. The film contains many local nuances which may be missed by non Indian audiences which is what makes this work a true labor of love as Merchent never tries to simplify the context or the complexity of the characterization.Great script, wonderful overall performances by the actors and a movie that truly enlarges ones world…

The movie is loaded with metaphors depicting the death of Urdu poetry. The decaying mansions, the poet’s failing health, his fall from grace all add up. The poverty has desensitized the college youth from being able to nurture a taste for poetry. They prefer to get diplomas in "japanese electronic gadgetry". Its grim. But its unavoidable. Urdu was cherished by the elite and rarely accepted by the masses. It was a medium of flattery, romance and also of unabashed obsequiousness. Poets almost ask for poverty unless they have a gracious benefactor. Like a lot of other artifacts of the past, it evokes wistfulness. The art though lives on in isolated pockets of the country.

In Custody is Ismail Merchant's beautiful retelling of Anita Desai's novel about the death of a language and a culture as reflected in the decline of one individual. Om Puri and Shashi Kapoor play men watching, with varying degrees of remorse and resignation, the death of the Urdu language, a language of poetry, erudition and courtliness. Shabana Azmi, as Nur's (Kapoor) second wife, a courtesan and singer of ghazals, is a bridge between what is passing and the rash future. Their performances are sensitive and subtle and quietly heartbreaking. The cinematography is exquisite, making the film visually rich and haunting. There are many strong performances, and the secondary characters are well-cast. The film is more theme-driven than plot-driven, so probably not suited to every taste. One of my very favorite Ivory-Merchant offerings.

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