In Custody

According to Robert Frost, poetry is what gets lost in translationwhich describes the difficulty as well as the interest of the first feature directed by Ismail Merchant (1993), best known as James Ivory’s producer for 30-odd years (he has forayed into directing only twice before, making two films for British television). His principal motive here was to pay homage to Urdu, a poetic language on the verge of extinction in northern India. Based on a novel by Anita Desai and adapted by her and Shahrukh Husain, the film tells of a Hindu teacher coming into contact with one of his idols, a revered Urdu poet who’s fallen on hard times; a central part of the story involves the teacher’s protracted tragicomic efforts to record the poet reciting his own poetry. Merchant’s storytelling and direction are fluid and graceful, but there’s nothing he can do to convey in subtitles the essence of the language he’s celebrating. With Shashi Kapoor, Shabana Azmi, Om Puri, and Sushma Seth. (JR)

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