29 November 2014 | Barev2013
A Florentine Homage to Ismail Merchant in a great picture without Ivory
For a certain niche group of cinephiles ever since the release of a film called "Shakespeare Wallah" in 1965, the "Merchant-Ivory" label has become synonymous with high-class rarified taste in cinema in some way associated with India ("A Passage to India", "Heat and Dust"), or, in the later collaborations of this producer-director team, with ultra refined literary adaptations set in Victorian England such as "The Remains of the Day", and "Howard's end". To be brutally frank, since "Merchant-Ivory" productions were never exactly my cup of tea cinematically speaking, (although I made valiant efforts to sit through a number of their films), I never paid enough attention to discern who did exactly what, whether they were both Indian or half-Indian or what -- and merely assumed that they were in some sense co-directors something like their polar opposites, the Coen brothers in the frozen wastes of Minnesota.
From a fascinating 1994 documentary screened here entitled "In Ismail's Custody" by Englishman Derrick Santini, which is basically a biopic about Mr. Merchant, and a takeoff on the name of the one film Merchant directed solo, IN CUSTODY, much of this cloudiness was cleared up. Ivory was a gay American Anglophile based in England and Merchant was an authentic Indian from Bombay. In general Ivory Directed their films and Merchant was the producer. However, "In Custody", is the one and only M&I production where Merchant for once took over the reins actually directing himself and is, for my money at least, the best picture in the entire M&I repertory.
The subject of the film, based on the novel my Anita Desai, is the decline of the Urdu language in India after partition when Urdu became the official language of Pakistan but, as the idiom of the Indian Muslims, began to be looked upon with a baleful eye in India proper.
For the record the plot of "In Custody runs like this: A literary editor asks Deven (Om Puri), a teacher who loves Urdu poetry, to interview a famous Urdu poet, Nur Shahjehanabadi, (Shashi Kapoor) an aging, fumbling,alcoholic, whale of a man not far from death's door. Deven goes to Bhopal from Mirpur to meet the cantankerous Nur, of whom he is in absolute awe. He finds him living with two feuding wives, and constantly visited by sycophants who drink his whisky and eat his food. Deven desperately wants to record Nur for posterity and manages to scrape up the funds to buy an aged tape recorder, to bribe Safiya, the elder wife, to get Nur into a room at a brothel for a week for the recording, and to feed Nur's pals who, whenever they show up, disrupt the recording sessions with their drunken carousing. Moreover, Deven's young technical assistant is an irresponsible deadbeat who feels he is being overworked for a pointless project and keeps messing up the tapes or failing to turn the machine on when the drunken poet finally gets around to reciting from his works. Meanwhile Nur's beautiful second wife, Imtiaz (Shabana Azmi), wants to be taken seriously as a poetess herself, but Dever dismisses her offhandedly while ignoring his own wife and child much as Nur does. In the end, hardly any of the precious recitations by Nur have been preserved as he drinks himself into the grave. In the course of the film, however, much of the melodious Urdu verses recited by Kapoor are actually heard in this boisterous requiem for a dying language. The three principals, Om with his heavily pitted but oh so soulful face, Kapoor with his massive extroverted personality, and Azmi, with her striking beauty, are all memorable as are the numerous supporting actors, particularly a very withered old woman in white whose occasional appearances punctuate the proceedings. Since Urdu was Bombay born Merchant's native language it is clear that he had a special feeling for the subject matter at hand and therefore wanted to do this picture himself. The result is a remarkably moving film which makes one wonder why he didn't do more directing. In fact, based on this one directorial effort I could not escape the feeling that some of the Ivory directed sleeperoos might have been a lot more lively if Jim and Ismail had just switched roles every now and then.
Alex, River to River Indian Film Festival, Florence: Dec. 17, 2005