For more than forty years since their first collaboration in 1963, Ismail Merchant of the famed Merchant-Ivory duo produced some of the finest English classics (A Room with a View, Howards End, The Remains of the Day) that were directed by his partner, James Ivory. It was with the 1994 film In Custody (Muhafiz) that Merchant transitioned into the role of a director for the first time in his illustrious career. Based on Anita Desai's novel of the same name, which was shortlisted for a Booker Prize in 1984, In Custody is a heartfelt ode from Merchant to his mother-tongue of Urdu and the traditional culture of India that shaped his formative years.
The National Award-winning film puts the spotlight on a legendary Urdu poet named 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 favorite 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 modernization in technology, language, and lifestyle. And so is the great poet Nur, who is at the fag end of his life.
Surrounded by 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 uninterested in being interviewed. 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 story. In one such scene, Nur jokingly explains to the young technician the difference between prose and poetry. He says, "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-best performance, which is nothing short of extraordinary. Extremely obese, frail, and worn-out, Nur personifies the decay and neglect of Urdu, which once enjoyed a reverential status in the country. The grief on his face, eyes and voice is heartbreaking as Kapoor 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 laden with deep emotions that bring out the sensitivity possessed by true artists/poets. Such is the greatness of Kapoor's poetic performance that it overshadows the acting brilliance of Om Puri!
The Merchant-Ivory duo was known to have a supreme 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 create 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 dhundhta phirta hai khayaal" in his affectionate voice, which is later followed by Suresh Wadkar singing the remaining verses. It's my favourite ghazal from the film and blends the sounds of the santoor, sarangi, and tabla to evoke a soothing and sweet feeling. Then there are two beautiful ghazals, "Raaz-e-ulfat chhupa ke dekh liya" and "Ae jazba-e-dil gar mai chahoon", sung by Kavita Krishnamurthy, who forms the playback voice of Imtiaz Begum (Shabana Azmi), Nur's second wife. These poems in the film are originally Nur's creations but Imtiaz performs them in front of an audience without crediting her husband. The final Faiz poem in the film is "Aaj bazaar mein pa bajola chalo", rendered beautifully by Hariharan.
In Custody is a melancholic and regretful look by Ismail Merchant at an India at the crossroads of change. The old traditional way of life is making way for a new modern life. The death/neglect of an ancient culture – its artists, language and architecture – is symbolized in the film's end through the breaking down of an old 'haveli' belonging to Deven's senior colleague. In place of it will be built a multi-storeyed shopping complex with restaurants, shops, and offices.
A scathing criticism of capitalism, 'development' and technology at the cost of arts and culture, this classic from Merchant-Ivory Productions is among my favourite films of all time.