As the producing half of the famed Ivory/ Merchant moviemaking team, Ismail Merchant is responsible for creating the luminous look of such films as A Room with a View and Howard's End, doing so on a budget that typical Hollywood flicks might set aside for catering. He convinces actors the caliber of Daniel Day-Lewis to slash their fees, inspires technicians to discover locales that sparkle, helps scavenge glorious period furniture and resplendent costumes and, with James Ivory's direction, delivers smart, literary entertainments year after year for a handful of millions.
After some three decades of this, Merchant has finally decided to direct. It's a given that his In Custody -- the tale of a timid college teacher's attempt to interview a great but failing Urdu-language poet -- would be visually stimulating, and it is: in the teacher's Indian village we see crowded bazaars overrun with Pepsi signs, camels coming across on trails, a horse-drawn surrey carrying schoolchildren over dusty roads. In the poet's Bhopal, we gaze at ancestral palaces, flowered courtyards, narrow alleys and mourners en masse. With all of this, Merchant's eye is just right.
He's likewise just right in his choice of a lead. In Custody features a bona fide movie star, though not one familiar to Western audiences: Shashi Kapoor, best-known here as the disparaging father in Sammy and Rosie Get Laid. Kapoor has been in some 250 Hindi films, and as In Custody's fictional Nur, one of India's greatest poets, he's unforgettable. Kapoor portrays an artist whose great passion is reflected in both his acute verse and his excessive living. One moment divinely inspired, the next rolling around in besotted disarray, both lauded by hangers-on and berated by the most shrewish of his multiple wives, Kapoor's Nur, exhaustive and exhausted, is a fascinating creation.
The movie, though, isn't. In Custody concerns the serious issue of language preservation. In a nation dominated by Hindi, Urdu is fast disappearing; this is why the deferential but determined teacher (Om Puri) interviews the master poet. So, lots of film time -- too much film time -- is spent reciting poetry. The many poems (supplied by famed Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz) can't be absorbed through subtitles; snippets, or just one, would have worked better. Minor characters sing lengthy Urdu verse without enhancing the story line, and the camera repeatedly lingers over native sites simply because of Merchant's clear affection for Indian culture -- an affection that spans back to Shakespeare Wallah and Bombay Talkie, amongst the earliest Ivory/Merchant productions. India-enamored Merchant has even penned Indian cookbooks; with In Custody, unfortunately, he overdoes the seasoning.
The other major problem is the film's strange, occasional comic tone. There are bungles with a tape recorder, squabbles over finances, cat fights amongst Nur's wives, emotional exaggerations about everything. These are unconvincing, sometimes irritating, and feel out of sync (at least for a Westerner). The redemption the flawed poet and the hapless hero worshiper provide for each other doesn't resonate as it should. "My mind is groping for a word," begins one Nur poem. My word for the film: muddled.
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Directed by Ismail Merchant. With Shashi Kapoor.