Even today the heritage film is somewhat of a vague term and difficult to determine whether or not it is a genre. However, if one was to throw Merchant-Ivory into the equation then audiences instantly know exactly what a heritage film looks like. This indicates how the two are inextricably tied together, and that Ismail Merchant and James Ivory's broad and enriching collaboration has helped shape and define a kind of cinema that seemed to sustain the British film industry in the eighties. Critics always seem to miss the point with Merchant-Ivory as much of their work is criticised for an elitist fascination with a nostalgic British society that is both repressive and snobbish in it's cultural tastes. Indian producer Ismail Merchant and American director James Ivory returned many a times to the colonialist relationship between India and the British empire. Their understanding of class is perhaps a wider representation of British cinema's continuing obsession with trying to work through and understand how such ideological divisions defines much of society. Ismail Merchant was a formidable and charismatic film producer yet he also directed a number of feature films, making his debut in 1994 with 'In Custody', an adaptation of Anita Desai's novel about a disillusioned teacher (Om Puri) who tries in vain to document the last days of a fading Urdu poet (Shashi Kapoor). It's a shame Ismail Merchant didn't direct more often as he certainly demonstrated with his first feature that he could create and sustain a compelling mood.
Om Puri as 'Deven', a star struck college lecturer who believes in preserving the traditions of Urdu poetry
'In Custody' offers a fascinating and intelligent view on an ever changing Indian society in which tradition has become a regular target for the steady erosion of values which represent the attitudes of a bygone age in which poets were held in high regard and revered for their bittersweet words. Though Deven, our main character and teacher, played by Om Puri is an avid fan of Urdu poetry, he is forced to teach Hindi as his main subject. We see him immediately being undermined and ridiculed by his students and the distance he maintains from his teaching position gives him the chance to go in search of one of the last great orators and advocates of Urdu poetry; Nur. The bellicose, rambunctious and alcoholic figure of Nur is played by an over sized Shashi Kapoor who at first appears virtually unrecognisable. Dismayed at the erosion of a great Indian tradition and the extinction faced by the Urdu language, Nur spends his final days in bouts of nihilist drinking sessions, pontificating pointlessly from the many poems he has written and catalogued in his clouded memory. Appropriately cast as Nur, Shashi Kapoor delivers one of his best performances, capturing the decadence of a man who sees death as a way of escaping from the humiliation of his origins and identity.
Shabana Azmi as 'Imtiaz Begum'; Nur's second wife also sees herself as somewhat of an undiscovered poet
Shashi Kapoor is equally matched by the anxieties experienced by Om Puri who as Deven is overcome with such adulation for a man he idolises that he is unable to see the beauty of the poetry written by Nur's second wife, Imtiaz Begum (Shabana Azmi). Deven is similar to the character of the neurotic and childish college lecturer (Shashi Kapoor) in 'The Householder' and he goes to great lengths to make a document of Nur's poetry but finds himself criticising technology as a harbinger of creative destruction. In keeping with the thematic traditions of Merchant-Ivory, the reluctant and sole voice of feminine emancipation imprisoned in the dominion of patriarchy is expressed through Imtiaz Begum, for whom Deven presents a substantial threat to her standing in the crumbling house of Nur. The DVD I managed to track down was surprisingly supported with some very interesting extras including specially commissioned interviews with the ensemble cast and an early short film titled 'Mahatma and the Boy' (1974), also directed by Ismail Merchant. This is a beautifully shot film and magnificently scripted, and one of the few films I have come across from India that makes exemplary use of the sublime Urdu poetry of Faiz Ahmed Faiz.