This is a seriously depressing film. The Urdu language (at least as it exists in contemporary India) is dying, embodied by the decaying frame of the great poet Nur (Shashi Kapoor), and nobody is saving it.* Even the people who try—professor Deven (Om Puri), practitioners Nur and aspiring poet and second wife Imtiaz Begum (Shabana Azmi), Urdu publisher Murad (Tinnu Anand)—are not up to the challenge. Deven cannot figure out the pragmatics of recording Nur's poems, nor does he seem to ask the big questions about what they mean.
As a museum person, I think about these issues a lot—you can't save everything, so how do you choose? What stories can those things tell and what can we learn from them? Why do they matter? Nur is too lazy, too debauched, too distracted by his woes and the tatters of his implied former glory to adapt or save himself.
Imtiaz Begum is too angry to let go of Nur and all the weighty obstacles he entails to have much energy left for her own voice.
Sushma Seth is also fantastic as Safiya Begum, Nur's first wife, who is furious at Imtiaz's presence (and son).
It also seems that Nur's general way of life (including a crew of smarmy hangers-on), the arts that accompany Urdu poetry or that it refers to, and the refinement of thought and expression these arts convey are at risk as well. The two wives are both more practical than Nur, worrying about money to support the fan club who is in some way Nur's only real lifeblood, but they're ready to destroy each other. His household is hanging by a thread. The house itself is a bit rough around the edges. Deven predicts the only thing from Nur's world that seems like it has a chance of lasting is a book of poems, but as PPCC points out, it's unclear whether anyone other than Deven will ever read it.
While looking around to see what else has been written about In Custody, I found a post at the blog Kafkaesque that made an important point about the female characters. The movie is predominantly populated by male characters—much like Nur's intellectual/public life and Deven's university administration and classrooms—and the very few women in it are trapped and sequestered. You don't see any women outside of their homes at all (assuming the prostitutes Nur and his boys visit live at their brothel). Safiya Begum seems to have resigned herself to this, finding ways to maintain and grab power within the home, but Imtiaz Begum is beginning to crack. Marrying Nur was a way out of the brothel and into an intellectual environment, but she's unable to flourish under his demands and in his shadow.
I wish the film had done more with her creative struggles. She has one great outburst at Deven when he refuses to read any of her poetry, accusing him of being unwilling to accept the idea that women are as artistically capable as men. Unfortunately, the little of her poetry the movie shows us was in fact not solely her own work. (I think—Nur is telling the truth when he says she's reciting his work as her own, right? Or is he being a slimy old thief?) Her fire is as much wishful thinking as talent, and in practice she may not be able to be all that she dreams. Her struggle to be as great a poet as she is convinced she has the potential to be is a mirror for Deven's failure to rescue Nur and his works. Here she flings Nur's pigeons out of their coop, maybe trying to clear out his shadow and his winged poems so that she too can soar.
In Custody's story is straightforward, the characters are engaging (though far from likable), and the overall tone palpable. It's beautifully shot, with rich textures and quiet colors. The performances are excellent, as you would expect. Om Puri is impressively dim as the well-meaning but incompetent Deven. Shabana Azmi's fierceness and desperation are so distressing. And Shashi's pathetic unhappiness made me shrink from the screen. As I said about his performance in Side Streets and have felt in other Merchant Ivory projects, qopwommrphaiusdflasjk (for new readers, this is a head-to-keyboard expression that means something like "my sense of reality, objective critical detachment, dil-squishability, tendencies to mother-hen depressed men, and love of movie self-references have all collapsed in on each other and then got whirled around in the blender of Shashi-pyaar"). In Custody didn't hurt as much as Side Streets or Heat and Dust, but it offers far less hope and future than either of those—down, down, down.
My issue with In Custody is how blatant most of its symbolism is. The embodiment of Urdu poetry is ill, bloated, addicted, hardly able to move. (Is it too undignified to compare Nur to Jabba the Hut? At least Nur can walk and isn't so overt a monster, but still.) Deven cleans up Nur's vomit with manuscripts of poems. The poems themselves have few readers/listeners. The man who's trying to save this art himself is trained and teaches in the language and literature that are replacing it. A fine old building owned by a backer of Deven's project to interview Nur is destroyed by a developer to make way for shops and a cinema. Somehow obviousness paired with a really depressing story is harder to swallow than a heavy-handed approach to a story that has at least some redeeming features or positive things to say.
In the interview in the DVD's special features, it is a huge relief to see Shashi looking so much healthier and livelier than he does in the film.
This segment is entirely in English, so I could enjoy his telling of Merchant and others trying to convince to do the role. It's endearing to hear such an accomplished actor talk about being nervous about taking on a project that felt so foreign to him - he was worried about being able to speak Urdu properly for the character and whether he could relate to someone so different from himself.
Also: masala meister Prayag Raj!
Side note: the film doesn't really discuss whether or not Urdu poetry has much to offer that is relevant to contemporary society (and thus "worth" saving) (though I'm uncomfortable with the idea of "worth" being applied to human creativity and expression). As I was thinking this over on my own, the latest piece I've encountered on the issue of dying languages came to mind. Fortunately for my mood, the latest piece I've encountered on this topic is David Mitchell (PYAAAAR!)'s Soapbox on saving Scottish Gaelic.** His argument is not very relevant to the questions in In Custody, but it's really funny, and he has some good points about evolving and artificial interference—and he talks about Hindi!
Other posts about In Custody can be found at Indie Quill, Paint It Pink!, Post-Punk Cinema Club, and Passion for Cinema (briefly).
On a happier note: whatever my next Shashi Kapoor-related post may be, according to my dubious record-keeping system, it will be the 100th. (Which means roughly 15% of this blog is about Shashi. The first step is to admit you have a problem.) Celebration seems in order, so tell me, what should I do to note this celebrate? Should a certain film be (re)visited? A particular performance? Some sort of type or trope or tendency investigated? I'll take suggestions over the next few days and choose the one that I think will yield the most interesting and/or fun post for you to read.
* Note: I wouldn't know if good poetry if it walked up and bit me (and am generally not motivated to try)—even if it bit me in English—so apart from enjoying The Voice washing over me, I don't think I can say much about the actual poems. I suspect this may significantly diminish my ability to appreciate some of the film's most beautiful features, as well as some of its messages. Sigh.
** I'm amazed how my brain jumbles together all the things I love and occasionally combines them in really useful ways. Project Runway and Shashi's wardrobe in Bombay Talkie! Doctor Who on the eruption of Vesuvius and my repeated viewings of Taal! Merchant Ivory films and David Mitchell! Thanks, brain!