With the wise and rueful comedy “In Custody,” Ismail Merchant, the producing half of the distinguished Merchant-Ivory team, turns director.
Merchant and his longtime partner, director James Ivory, have been responsible for such celebrated films as “Howards End” and “The Remains of the Day,” and he brings to his film of the Anita Desai novel the same kind of civility and sophistication that has characterized Merchant Ivory productions for 30 years.
The primary point of this leisurely and engaging film is to celebrate Urdu, a Northern Indian language cherished by poets and writers for its beauty, that is on the verge of extinction. In selecting Desai’s novel to adapt to the screen, however, Merchant has wisely chosen humor as the most effective way to protest a great cultural loss. Indeed, his film is at times almost literally excruciatingly funny, striking a perfect balance between laughter and pain.
Om Puri stars as Deven, a poorly paid, badly treated professor of Hindi at a backwater college in the ancient town of Mirpore. He has had a lifelong passion for Urdu and would love to devote his life to writing poetry in that language, but has a wife (Neena Gupta) and small son (Sameer Mitha) to support. When a friend (Tinnu Anand), the publisher of a journal devoted to Urdu culture, suggests that he interview Nur Shahjehanabadi, the man widely regarded as the greatest living Urdu poet, Deven cannot resist.
Deven inadvertently has embarked upon a journey fraught with comic peril. After no small difficulty he finds Nur (Shashi Kapoor) living in a crumbling Bhopal palace with his two wives, (Sushma Seth, Shabana Azmi), who detest each other ferociously.
As for Nur himself, he has slid into a life of indolent despair, surrounded by freeloading admirers who drink and feast at the poet’s expense far into the night. As soon as Nur is convinced of Deven’s sincerity, he agrees to the interview, but Deven doesn’t reckon with the wives; worse luck, he lets himself get carried away with the possibility of videotaping the master reciting his own work, settling for a used tape recorder.
At every turn Deven meets fresh, costly complications, and the humor of these encounters makes bearable the massive indifference he faces without exception. Even those fully aware of Nur’s stature are so immersed in their own petty concerns they actually tend to hinder rather than help Deven in his modest but important quest.
With his gallery of beautifully observed characters Merchant has evoked a genuine sense of the human comedy. The smallest role is sharply, comically defined, and Om Puri’s heroically patient Deven, a much put-upon middle-aged man, offers a sharp contrast to Shashi Kapoor’s selfless, majestic portrayal of Nur, a man only too well aware of his own sad decline.
In a sense “In Custody” is an homage to Kapoor as much as it is to the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz, the poet whose words Kapoor recites with such eloquence and passion.
* No MPAA rating . Times guidelines: complex adult themes, suitable for teens.
Om Puri: Deven
Shashi Kapoor: Nur
Shabana Azmi: Imtiaz Begum
Sushma Seth: Safiya Begum
A Sony Pictures Classics release. Director Ismail Merchant. Producer Wahid Chowhan. Executive producers Paul Bradley, Donald Rosenfeld. Screenplay by Anita Desai and Shahrukh Husain; from Desai’s novel. Cinematographer Larry Pizer. Editor Roberto Silvi. Costumes Lovleen Bains. Music Zakir Hussain, Ustad Sultan Khan. Production designer Suresh Sawant. In Hindi and Urdu, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
* In limited release at the Laemmle’s Monica 4-Plex, 1332 Second St., Santa Monica. (310) 394-9741.