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Film review: In Custody

The somber Om Puri has the lead role in "In Custody," playing Deven, scholar who is reluctantly teaching Hindi in a Delhi university. But his heart is with Urdu, a vanishing language he would like to see preserved.

For the foreseeable future, however, Deven must teach Hindi to provide a meager income for his wife and son. And on the side, without any compensation, he contributes Urdu pieices to a small literary magazine, which is also attempting to keep the language alive. Meanwhile, he dreams of a life where scholarly pursuits are a thing of joy instead of a ponderous duty.

One day, the editor of the afore-mentioned literary magazine suggests Deven look up the famed Urdu poet Nur (Shashi Kapoor) for an interview. Deven knows the man's work but is reluctant to try and make contact, having heard that Nur is in retirement and does not particularly welcome visitors.

But Deven takes on the task anyway and soon finds himself plunged into an unexpected maze of events that bring him into conflict with his own spouse, his university bosses and Nur's two warring wives.

Deven's wife, already feeling rather neglected, doesn't want him taking time away from his family to pursue this objective. And he is further hindered by a lack of funding for the project--just finding a working tape recorder is a major task--and by the reluctance of his department head to allow him any time off.

But things really become difficult when Deven sees the life Nur is leading. Nur has become slovenly and complacent, he allows himself to be controlled by wife No. 2--a former courtesan with poetic aspirations of her own--and is manipulated by a group of sycophants who leech off of him, while keeping him inebriated. Wife No. 1, however, agrees to help Deven achieve his goal--but only if she is paid.

Based on a 1987 novel by Anita Desai, the story is fictional--as is the legendary poet--put the passion for this largely ignored language is not. Director Ismail Merchange (the producing half of the Merchant-Ivory team, which has given us "A room with a View." "Howards End," "The Remains of the Day," etc.) obviously has a great love for Urdu, and it comes through in the many sequences where Urdu poetry is sung or recited at length. But sometimes these sequences are too lengthy.

"In Custody" is unfortunately static and dry in places and begins to wear out its welcome after awhile. At more than two hours in length, it could easily hnave been trimmed to make the narrative structure more compelling. And it might help to have come knowledge of Indian history, and specifically the background of the Urdu language.

Still, despite its flaws, "In Custody" presents conflicts that are universal and there is some insight offered into the Indian culture. And the performances are uniformly excellent, with special kudos to Puri and Kappor.

"In Custody" is rated PG for some mild vulgarity.