In Custody

10/31/2010

India / 1993 / Hindi & Urdu

Directed by Ismail Merchant

With Om Puri, Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi

Still from 'In Custody'To love an art form that is nearing extinction, even if it be in the immobile and eminently preservable realm of literature, is an experience at once frustrating and gratifying, requiring a necessary degree of stubbornness to help its unfortunate sufferer to fight the good fight. And it may be that no one on Earth knows this condition better than Deven, a cantankerous teacher of Hindi at a college in an undistinguished North Indian city. He is an enthusiast of a venerable form of Urdu poetry that, it would seem, is emanating from a dwindling number of dedicated pens. An amateur poet on the side, he gladly accepts the opportunity, when asked by a magazine editor friend named Murad, to interview his all time hero, the great poet Nur Shahjahanabadi. In Deven’s opinion, this man is foremost in his field, with writing that is matchless among his younger contemporaries.

For Deven this is a rare chance to get away from his unruly students, rigid superiors, his quietly despondent wife Sarla and their spirited young son Chiku. He boards a bus bound for the grand, dog-eared city of Bhopal, and sets out locating Nur. What he finds falls something short of his expectations; the once brilliant and prolific Nur is now worn out and overweight, only leaving his bed to be fed biryani and liquor by an uncouth claque of obsequious men who laugh raucously and quote his poems back to him, missing the sculpted pronunciation so integral to the poetic language of Urdu. Nur is as a man who has rested on his laurels for too long, locked in torpor by more than a lifetime’s worth of praise and admiration. Papers with his writing on them – like gold to Deven – litter the floor and are used for cleaning up the great man’s sick when he has had too much to drink. It is unclear whether the school of minnows constantly surrounding him is partly the reason for his deterioration, or if it was his slide into overindulgence that made him vulnerable to them in the first place.

Disappointed but persistent, Deven continues to pay him visits, intent on getting an interview for Murad’s magazine. He works toward trying to get the school to put up the money for a camcorder. When that falls through, he must settle for a clunky reel to reel tape recorder from Japan, along with an inept, young assistant to help him capture the poet’s voice. Nur’s eldest wife, Safiya, wastes little time in recognizing the possible gain that can be derived from Deven’s interest. She arranges for Deven to meet with Nur in private to make the recordings – and, of course, charges her own commission. The secret location (read: the brothel across the street) does not stay secret for long, and soon the room gets filled with the usual group of would-be poets and hangers-on, with one distraction after another interrupting the poor professor’s interview.

The article obsesses Deven; running far beyond the deadline he begins losing his grip on his job (the administration is expecting results since they invested money in it), his family, and even the article itself. His mission becomes purely personal, needing to make the recordings for himself, to own, in some part, Nur’s words and voice, to take them away from the fragile and flawed man who sits before him, to preserve them in a place worthy of their perfection.

Imtiaz is Nur’s second (but far from secondary) wife who, while younger and thus lower in rank, is his favorite as she has been the one to bear a child. She does not occupy the lower courtyard, lest she be showered with curses from her mother in law and harangues from Safiya, and lives instead in chambers on a higher level. Having worked in a brothel before marrying Nur, she continues to perform songs as would a courtesan, enchanting local men who come to their house to hear her sing, but shaming her helpless husband to tears, sending him into a spiral of alcohol and self-loathing, if he is not already there to begin with.

Still from 'In Custody'Hating to see his hero suffer so, Deven confronts Imtiaz, saying that she has lifted lines of her husband’s poetry – or, at least, his style – for her suggestive singing. The fact that the poetry and the songs can function interchangeably is very telling. She asks him why she, as a woman, should not be allowed to write and perform her own material. Indeed, it is a very good question, one that he has not considered and is not likely to. Although Imtiaz has a lot written, old-fashioned attitudes keep her from getting published, and so she remains boxed into a relatively narrow and far from reputable position that doesn’t hold recognized creative merit.

Deven’s role as the detached aesthete is cemented by how he arranges and prioritizes the recording sessions; he is supposedly interviewing Nur, but only turns the tape recorder on whenever the florid spouts of Urdu bubble forth from his otherwise abstracted rambling. But it is the thoughts the poet offers in between – the remembrances, the observations, the puerile quips – that say more about the source of the poems and the personal importance of the imagery than could be divined from a formalist study of the words and their arrangement. Since they aggravate his idealization of the poet, Deven treats these things as superfluous to his mission, and winds up with virtually nothing, as a result.

Based on the Anita Desai novel of the same name, this is a curiously tardy lament for the loss of Indian high culture, looking relatively wan next to Ray’s Jalsaghar (1958), done some 35 years earlier, which makes a similar statement but in a way that is dramatically more laconic. In that earlier picture there is a noticeable equating – more than just hinting, really – of the decline of the arts with the rising egalitarianism of independence, music being less and less the preserve of the British-tied gentry and, finally, freed to be transformed by the hands and voices of the people.

Working with cultural traditions that are distinct from those Ray utilizes for his commentary, Merchant presents a film that is nonetheless rife with many of the same themes and points of reference. Siddiqui, Deven’s boss at the college, is one of the more obvious connections to a highly cultured, highly Westernized India of yore, which in this case seems aimless, changeable, and vacant, like an Ambassador car whose driver has jumped out while it continues rattling down the road. Inhabiting a crumbling family haveli from which he wishes he could escape forever, he holds a classical music concert that seems appropriate for a lavish party, but Deven is his only guest.

Although it is set in a surreally static, timelessly decrepit India, only partially identifiable with the humming, heedlessly-paced and contemporary reality, In Custody does two timely and important things on its own. First and foremost, while it presents with sadness the demise of a graceful and time-worn art, it mainly expresses sorrow for the champions of such literature who, like Deven, lovingly and studiously uphold a thing that is dear to them but that becomes increasingly leaden when set against the opposing rush of cultural change. And secondly the film quite pointedly puts its fusspot central character in the context of the modern, of a newly internationalized economy and the steady push of women to become recognized figures in public life. These themes lead to an examination of life in India that goes deeper than merely its connection to colonial eras, political change, or human migration.

Still from 'In Custody'Why is In Custody, ultimately, so affecting? It cannot entirely be the heartrending sight of an obese and bedraggled Shashi Kapoor, whose understated acting style once bristled with a youthful vigor elegantly contained. There is an elegiac tone that connects this to such early Merchant-Ivory films as The Householder (1963) and Shakespeare Wallah (1968), although Deven’s plight adds additional shades of the screwball. Perhaps it is its contradictory voice, at once holding up this old poetic tradition as something gorgeous and not long for this world and also condemning many of the social conditions under which it flourished for so long.  In India there exists a strong association between great Muslim poetry and the scandalous, the unsavory – spare and exquisite on the outside, the words often carry double meanings that are considered too provocative by conservative Hindus. This is the poetry of the cafe and the darkened sitting room, of the nauch girl and the opium straw, its dusky words lingering like umber haze over the terraces and minarets rising in the sunset.

This lineage has, in the film, the parallel image of being outdated and misogynistic, not fit for continuation into a modern age. It smacks of a time when women like Imtiaz were relegated to the roles of muses or amusement. In India today women are politicians, police officers, soldiers. In comparison to these changes, the arts seem lagging behind, oddly enough in spite of the adaptability that has sustained them in a traditionally shifting cultural landscape. The film itself seems unsure whether sadness is the proper reaction for this Urdu poetry’s slow demise. Perhaps, like the lines from Nur’s poems, we should feel overcome by a bitter sweetness, by the celebration of the sensuality of life that is always swathed in the unmistakable presence of death.

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2 Responses to “In Custody”

  1. Saira Mizrahi said

    The best review of either the film or book that I’ve come across – a pleasure to read. I found the persistent frustration of Deven’s dreams painful and deeply depressing and the ending a violation of the sense of tragic inevitability that begins to take hold of the reader – he almost should have walked into the water at the end. However, I felt an equally strong counter-current of absurdist comedy and pathos that lifts us above the protagonist’s personal struggle to appreciate the moving irony of his inability to give up on Nur, or his love of Urdu – a kind of poignant longing for a past that will never come again. I get that same kind of ironic love of an age and culture ‘gone with the wind’ in Tennessee Williams’ plays – something that needed to die, but in those who tragically try to keep it alive, it becomes somehow ennobling.

    • chaiwalla said

      I absolutely agree – the story relates the comedy of preservation from a number of angles. Deven’s plight as a teacher, aesthete, and custodian of a dying culture is not hard to identify with, as it requires, or perhaps even sprouts from, a reluctance to accept change and impermanence. There is an absurdity to it, as his goals cannot be met with a degree of (visible) delusion and even hypocrisy, excluding some aspects of the culture while championing others. It seems that, in holding on to the poems, even if they be recorded directly from the poet’s mouth, something irretrievable has been lost and can never be captured again, no matter how forcefully one may treasure it. It sounds like you really responded to the bitter-sweetness of the situation, which I also think is at the heart of Desai’s story, since, as we grow older, so do the things that we love. So, thank you for the kind and thoughtful response.

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