9 July 2011 | Chrysanthepop
In Custody of a Language
Merchant Ivory Productions's adaptation of Anita Desai's novel, 'In Custody' is rawer and grittier than their previous films. Not to put down their previous works, which are gems in their own rights, but such treatment wouldn't have worked for a story like 'In Custody'. Merchant gives it a very lyrical and subtle toned down look. The art direction and props look very authentic. Cinematography has always been a strong point in Merchant Ivory films and here too it is no less stunning.
The film's key theme is that of deterioration. This is reflected in the dying out of the Urdu language that Deven desperately tries to keep alive through Nur's poetry; in Nur's own life (once he was a celebrated poet and now he's merely an over-eating alcoholic has-been who's resented by his own wife) and seeks momentary comfort in his supposed 'fans' who drop by, uninvited, for their own convenience; in Choti Begum who's become the breadwinner as she continues to plagiarize her husbands poems and performs in front of the sleazy men of the village. With Choti Begum, the issue of feminism is touched. When she tells Deven how men were always praised for their poetry while women were merely seen as the object of desire, this does ring true to an extent.
The first rate performances are very natural. Shashi Kapoor performs effortlessly. In a way, 'In Custody' also reflects the deterioration of his physical health. Shabana Azmi also turns in a remarkable performance and Om Puri leads the film with élan.
The poetry is superb. It contributes beautifully. Not only is it a part of the film, but to me the entire picture felt like one poem.