Producer Ismail Merchant makes a smooth and confident move to the director’s chair with “In Custody,” an elaborate shaggy-dog tale about a teacher’s bruising relationship with an admired Urdu poet that’s given stature and resonance by its central trio of marvelous perfs. Merchant’s name should ensure the pic a smooth entree to fests and upmarket salons, though further tightening of its two-hour-plus running time would bring dramatic benefits to its specialized subject matter.
Pic is a much more assured work, in look and structure, than Merchant’s previous sortie behind the lens, the rococo, semi-docu short feature “The Courtesans of Bombay” (1983). Though Merchant’s style is conservative — largely fixed-camera setups and textbook cutting — there’s a clean, easy flow to both the movie and the playing that’s in sharp contrast to many of the works of his longtime partner James Ivory. Setting is north central India, in the state of Madhya Pradesh, where Deven (Om Puri) is a small-town teacher who’s urged by a goofy publisher friend to interview the poet Nur (Shashi Kapoor), the greatest living exponent of the dying Urdu language.
After scrabbling together some money and putting his teaching job on the line , Deven travels to scenic Bhopal to meet his hero, now an obese, broken wreck, surrounded by hangers-on and bullied by an ambitious second wife (Shabana Azmi) who’s plagiarized his works for her own ends.
Deven’s attempts to record Nur’s memories and recitations turn into a tragicomedy of bizarre proportions. Nur is mostly drunk or incoherent, his second wife hostile, his first wife jealous and money-grubbing. Deven returns almost empty-handed, his dreams shattered — though a final twist restores his faith. Co-scripted by Anita Desai from her own 1987 novel (written in English), the movie essentially spins on a dime: the breaking of one man’s blinkered idealism. Around this the movie weaves a fabric of relationships and cultural riffs — the dying art of majestic Urdu poetry, the lack of modern respect for tradition, and the sheer impossibility of achieving anything lasting in India’s social and economic setup.
It’s a rich feast, sometimes too rich for viewers not attuned to the cultural and linguistic subtleties, though the sheer strength of the main perfs manages to hold the attention even in the burgeoning musical and poetic sequences.
As the burnt-out, roly-poly bard, Kapoor, almost unrecognizable from his slim , matinee-idol days, limns a commanding presence, halfway between an Indian Laughton and Greenstreet. Playing neat and tight as the teacher, Puri treads a fine line between comic bemusement and dogged veneration.
Azmi, as Kapoor’s beautiful second wife, skillfully manages the difficult switch from cynical regality in the early stages to an object of some sympathy. Playing in a host of other roles is sharp and full of character.
The pic is a delight to behold, with standout lensing of Mughal-style locations near Lake Bhopal by British-born Larry Pizer (“The Europeans”) and deft use of music to carry the tragicomic mood. Roberto Silvi’s cutting is unobtrusive, and costuming and production design are consistently eye-catching.