In Custody (1993)

“What fool has come here to see me?”

In the film In Custody, the very best film created by the Merchant/Ivory team, Professor Deven (Om Puri) teaches Hindi at a small college in India. Deven’s passion, however, is for Urdu. Deven writes articles for a small magazine, and his editor charges Deven with the task of seeking an interview with Nur (Shashi Kapoor) “India’s greatest living Urdu poet”. Deven’s attempts to interview Nur are thwarted by a cult of fans, Nur’s resentful second wife, and by Nur himself. The results are at once darkly amusing, and infinitely sad.

In Custody is an incredibly rich film with many interwoven themes. Deven worships Nur as a poet, but the huge difference between Nur, the great poet, and the realities of Nur, the flawed human being, overwhelm Deven. Deven has worshipped Nur, and meeting him in person comes as a terrific shock. Deven (played with marvelous subtlety by Om Puri) is a quiet man devoted to Urdu poetry. No one seems to take either Deven or his determination to promote Urdu poetry seriously. Few people are interested in Urdu anymore. Times are difficult. India is changing, and this is underscored by society’s fading interest in Urdu and in a similar vein, Deven’s colleague cannot afford to maintain his inheritance–a vast magnificent, crumbling palace reminiscent of former splendour. There is little extra money to be thrown around, and interviewing a poet who chooses to write in a language in which India is losing interest seems frivolous to Deven’s colleagues, and to Deven’s wife. Deven’s project begins as an uphill battle, and it doesn’t get easier.

Nur and Deven share a love of Urdu poetry, but as human beings they are opposites. In Custody shows the domestic arrangements of both men, and they both fail to inspire any respect from their wives, but for different reasons. Nur’s second wife is a domestic tyrant, and yet she also suffers from living in her husband’s shadow. She longs for recognition and respect, and she’s destined never to receive it.

In Custody is a stunningly beautiful film which contains scenes I shall never forget. This–combined with an incredible soundtrack creates a unique and amazing film. In Urdu and Hindi with English subtitles.


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