In Custody

Released in 1993/94 by Merchant/Ivory Production team, this film shot on location in India (Mirpur and Bhopal) by Merchant, features Shashi Kapoor and Om Puri as the main protagonists who struggle with dreams and passions for poetry in a modernizing world more focused on money, gadgets and indulgences.  Deven (Om Puri) teaches Hindi at a college though his heart lies in writing Urdu poetry no one will publish and, he thinks, no one will read in the era in which formal Urdu is losing its significance in India—an old historic language giving way to a modern Hindi/Urdu mix.  Urdu poetry has a long tradition that Deven wishes he could be a part of, but that tradition is dying.

However, an old classmate tracks Deven down to help with preparing a struggling Urdu journal issue on poetry, at which point Deven insists on including poems by the famous and still living poet Nur Shahjehanebadi (Shashi Kapoor).  The publisher convinces Deven to instead do an interview—on his meager salary he makes the journey to Bhopal to find Nur an irascible elephantine man who would rather put off the interview to instead play host to a gaggle of men who flatter the poet, spout his poetry, and stuff themselves silly with his food and drink until even the poet, at one point, collapses in his own vomit.  Deven is silent, even angry, at what he witnesses—not only the degradation of an idol, but the dashing of a fabulous dream of interviewing and “saving” that idol from obscurity.  Nur, though depressed by his encroaching obscurity, cannot break out of his routine to allow himself to be saved.  Deven, however, does not give up but rather jumps at the chance when Nur soon writes him to come back–Nur says he can no longer write, but can only recite and invites Deven to come record his poetry.

During this return journey, Deven comes to face new hurdles, not just the poet’s lack of interest, but the poet’s second-wife’s desire to be seen as powerful and creative as the husband, the poet’s first-wife’s desire to profit from the husband’s fame financially, the need to get funding to do the recording—which is so meager that he is reduced to an old reel-to-reel recorder he doesn’t know how to use so is stuck with an inept “recordist” to pay, the sudden need to pay for the poet to record in a room outside of his house (in a brothel) to escape the second wife’s interference, and the sudden need to feed and ply with drink the poet’s followers.  Deven has always had to be a simple man, forced to teach Hindi to support his wife and child in somewhat poor conditions, and is overwhelmed by all these unforeseen extravagant expenses just to get a recording out of the poet.  But he perseveres because of his love of the language and of the poetry, seemingly in spite of the true nature of the source of that poetry.  Deven holds onto his dream of sustaining Urdu poetry and his admired poet in spite of all technological or modernizing setbacks, all illuminations that his dream is a crumbling façade of a man, all greed and grasping to profit from what Deven holds up as irreproachable high art.

The simple interview instead turns into quite a production and comedy of errors pitting tradition against modernity when Deven is forced to tape record the poet but finds the microphone unplugged, the tape recorder turned off, or the tape all unwound and entangled by the incompetent but modern “technical” school graduate foisted upon him to help wrangle the new technology that Deven finds incomprehensible.  But the interview is not the only instance of tradition competing with modernity—the poet’s wife demands to be taken seriously as a female poetess in the contemporary era, but is refused because she is too similar to her husband’s poetry and, still, she is a woman; one of the college administrators has inherited a huge palace, which he yearns to unload, and finally does, to someone who will tear it down to put up apartment blocks and free him of the burden of maintaining tradition; in tradition a poet would have followers who would support him and his artistry, while in modernity Nur is surrounded by followers who recite his poetry and hang-on in order to be fed sumptuously and plied with drink by the poet who fears being lost in obscurity.  Deven is our window into these conflicts of tradition and modernity—in fact his desire to record the poet exacerbates many of them.

The interview a disaster, partially due to the uncooperativeness of the poet or his followers, partly due to technical hazards, Deven ends up with an unusable recording and a somewhat crushed spirit.  His hero has let him down.  Urdu poetry has let him down.  He doesn’t have a fabulous recording, nor does he have a wonderful interview of a hallowed poet.  He has only shattered dreams of other shattered lives.  However, at the end of Nur’s life, when even Deven has given up hope of successfully being able to communicate with the illustrious poet, Nur sends Deven a volume of his last poems to keep “in custody”.  The film ends with Deven during the poet’s elaborate funeral carrying a bound volume of the loose poems Nur sent him.

What are the other cultural elements we see in this film?  Deven is constantly berated by his superior at the college—where he earns very little money and obviously gets little respect from the administration and even students.  This is not a satisfying job so that Deven must even more so turn towards self-fulfillment in poetry and in the opportunity to interact with an idol—thus even further defeating when that idol turns out to be an imperfect man with wife troubles and self-esteem issues.

Nur is facing a challenge in that at one time he was reknowned for his poetry, ghazals that his second wife steals and sings as her own, but that poetry is losing its appeal in the face of televisions, boom boxes and new technologies with the modern era.  Only the hangers-on who want to get some advantage from him still pay him homage—thus when Deven comes wanting an interview Nur just can’t break his somewhat isolating mannerisms—he ignores Deven, calls for food and drink for his “friends”, drinks himself into oblivion, ignores Deven with the microphone ready to record poetry and instead calls for drink and food or recites Keats, etc.  He does everything to render himself isolated, yet regrets his isolation in the modern world.  In fact, aside from a shopkeeper’s stock of new technologies and talk of the modern technological marvels such as video cameras, and a few buses, we see little of the modern era in the film at all.  We are almost as stuck in the past as Nur and his entourage are.

The world of women is given interesting shrift in this film—we see just Deven’s wife, Nur’s two wives and mother-in-law, and a few drifting brothel women; even Nur’s second wife is said to have come from a brothel or have been a dancer, thus a “loose” woman to be suspect.  Yet two women, Deven’s wife and Nur’s second wife, have some power, though very little, as the mothers of sons—thus highlighting again the dominating world of men and the subservient world of women according to Merchant’s film—which may not tell the whole story of India in the 1990’s!  We see the more traditional version of male-female relations, dominating husband and subservient wife, though Nur’s second wife does her best to break this pattern, as she struggles to be taken seriously as a poetess in her own right.  But she will always be overshadowed as a poetess by her husband’s own fame and style.  Her only avenue is to sing ghazals and be showered with money as a sensualized performer.

In conclusion, Merchant/Ivory present us a very sensualized film overall, from the mise-en-scene to the touching struggles of men and women trying to assert themselves in a world perhaps they cannot dominate, to the lovely ghazals and recited poetry, to the lovingly crafted human characters.

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About sandrellita

I'm a film studies professor, fiber artist, potter and jeweler but my first love is cinema, thus this blog on cinema and culture.
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4 Responses to In Custody

  1. Majka Weckman says:

    Thank you for this comprehensive and insightful review.

    • sandrellita says:

      Majka, I’m just learning WordPress, that’s why I’ve taken so long to write back–I didn’t know I could! But I wanted to thank you for your positive comment on my blog and thank you for checking in on it. I’m learning how to set it up to have subscriptions, if you want to keep track of other posts I make on international film. Do you blog on film too? I’m learning! Thanks again! Sandra/Sandrellita

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