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In the 1994 Merchant Ivory production In Custody, Om Puri plays Deven, a timid Hindi professor in India whose first love is the slowly disintegrating language of Urdu. When he receives a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet and interview his idol, the legendary Urdu poet Nur (Shashi Kapoor), Deven is over the moon. He is shocked, however, when his idol turns out to be a far cry from the idealized image of his imagination.
In Custody was an adaptation of the 1984 novel of the same name by Anita Desai, which had been shortlisted for the prestigious Booker Prize upon its release. The film project was considered a somewhat eccentric choice for Merchant Ivory Productions due to its focus on the fading Urdu language and culture within India as well as the filmmakers' desire to make the film in Urdu rather than English. At the time, however, filmmaking partners Ismail Merchant and James Ivory were riding a huge wave of success after 30 years of working together. With recent hits such as A Room with a View (1985), Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993) garnering international acclaim as well as multiple Academy Award nominations, it seemed that their creative partnership could do no wrong.
Making a film in Urdu rather than English wasn't the only unusual aspect of In Custody. It also marked the feature film directing debut of Ismail Merchant. Merchant was usually the producing half of the Merchant Ivory team while James Ivory took the directing reins. "I had had no great desire to direct a feature film," said Merchant in his 2002 memoir My Passage from India, "until I'd read this novel, but the subject was so close to my heart that I doubted I could be entirely objective about anyone else's interpretation of the material. I knew that if I were ever to direct a feature film, it would not be for the sake of the exercise, but because I cared very strongly about the themes involved. Urdu is my language and my culture, and I saw this film as an homage to my heritage."
To adapt Anita Desai's novel into a screenplay for In Custody, Merchant and Ivory went straight to the source and asked Desai to accept the challenge herself. Desai was a longtime friend of Merchant and Ivory's frequent collaborating partner and friend Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and had already known the men for the better part of 30 years. To their delight, Desai agreed. After she finished adapting her novel, said Merchant, "the screenplay was then translated into Urdu by Shahrukh Husain, who incorporated into the script various verses by the great Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz."
While the action of the novel took place in Delhi, Merchant asked for one significant change in the film: he wanted it to be set in Bhopal. "Bhopal is the state capital of Madhya Pradesh, which used to be a Muslim state, and Urdu is still widely spoken there," he said. "Located in an area of outstanding natural beauty and dominated by two picturesque lakes, the Moguls made this place a refuge for artists, poets and musicians, and that tradition is still maintained." Additionally, with a gas explosion in 1984 that left parts of the area devastated as well as the 1992 destruction of the Ayodhya mosque by extremists, Bhopal had the visual look of decay that seemed appropriate to the themes of In Custody.
"For all that," explained Merchant in his memoir, "I had an enduring romantic notion of Bhopal inspired by a photograph I had seen as an adolescent and which represented for me the beauty and refinement of the city before it was beset by so many tragedies. Friends of my family's in Bombay had a son who had married a girl from Bhopal, and the photograph that was so impressed on my memory was one of the bride and groom sitting in a boat on the lake, the girl offering the boy a perfect lotus flower. The image was simple and powerful, and I have never forgotten it. Although I was advised not to shoot in Bhopal--the curfew imposed after the 1992 riots had only just been lifted, and the atmosphere was still volatile--after going there to scout locations, nothing in the world would have made me change my mind. The faded, crumbling grandeur of the architecture, the sense of decline--it just couldn't have been reproduced anywhere else."
Ismail Merchant always wanted esteemed Indian actor Shashi Kapoor to play the role of Urdu poet Nur. Kapoor had worked with the Merchant Ivory team before on such films as The Householder (1963), Bombay Talkie (1970) and Heat and Dust (1983). Nur was a rich role that Merchant saw as Shakespearean in its tragedy, and Kapoor, he believed, was born to play it.
Kapoor, however, was initially not so convinced. He was dubious that the book could be successfully turned into a film. He also wasn't confident that he would be able to speak Urdu convincingly, and he knew very little about poetry. Kapoor encouraged Merchant to find someone else to play Nur. Merchant, however, was persuasive. "Eventually, [Merchant] got hold of my family, my children, my daughter, my brother--everyone to kind of side with him and brainwash me into accepting the part, and I'm glad I did it," said Kapoor in a 2005 interview. "I'm very proud of the fact that I could play...someone very different from me, unknown to me."
For the central role of Deven, Merchant chose noted veteran actor Om Puri. It would be Puri's first time working in a Merchant Ivory production. To play Nur's shrewish second wife Imtiaz, Merchant cast Shabana Azmi, who was regarded as one of India's finest actresses; she was also the daughter of the great Urdu poet Kaifi Azmi, a fact that Merchant found wonderfully apropos of the film's subject matter.
Cinematographer Larry Pizer, who had worked on two previous Merchant Ivory productions (The Europeans  and Jane Austen in Manhattan ), was chosen to shoot In Custody. "Always calm and quietly spoken, Larry was someone I trusted absolutely to interpret my ideas and at the same time prevent my beginner's mistakes," said Merchant. "Although I had made a number of documentaries, a feature film was a more complex matter whose technical demands I had yet to master. I felt quite confident that I knew exactly how to handle the artistic and dramatic elements of filmmaking, but I was also aware--and still am--that in technical matters I am very much an undergraduate."
Making In Custody was a significant learning experience for Ismail Merchant that was deeply personal and close to his heart--even if the process came with a few headaches. "I shed fifteen pounds while making the film and, according to some, displayed a corresponding increase in artistic volatility," said Merchant. "I cut scenes if I felt they weren't working, or suddenly adapted scenes to take advantage of an unusual location, a striking face, a new idea. Although I had been observing [James Ivory] at work for thirty years and have learned a lot from him, I have my own way of working that is different from his. Instead of being thrown by the unexpected elements that can occur during filming, I actively welcome them. I like the sense of spontaneity and surprise, and making In Custody was one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life."
Producer: Wahid Chowhan
Director: Ismail Merchant
Screenplay: Anita Desai (novel and script); Shahrukh Husain (script)
Cinematography: Larry Pizer
Music: Zakir Hussain, Ustad Sultan Khan
Film Editing: Roberto Silvi
Cast: Shashi Kapoor (Nur), Shabana Azmi (Imtiaz Begum), Om Puri (Deven), Sushma Seth (Safiya Begum), Neena Gupta (Sarla), Tinnu Anand (Murad), Prayag Raj (Jain), Ajay Sahni (Siddiqui), Sagar Arya (Chiku), Alakh Nandan (Trivedi).
by Andrea Passafiume