In Custody, the movie made from Professor Anita Desai's first screenplay, will open at theaters across the nation in July. The film, which The New York Times called "a lyric appreciation of poetry and a comedy of errors about literary lives," is also the directorial debut of Ismail Merchant, the producing partner of the Merchant-Ivory team that created acclaimed films including Room With a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day.
The new movie is based on Professor Desai's 1984 novel of the same name, which was on the short list for the Booker Prize, Great Britain's highest literary honor. Her other novels, including Fire on the Mountain, Clear Light of Day and Baumgartner's Bombay, have also been highly praised. She joined MIT in 1993 as professor of creative writing in the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies of the Department of Humanities and Social Science.
In the film, Deven, a provincial college professor, attempts to preserve India's dying literary language, Urdu, by interviewing one of the last great Indian Urdu poets. During the interviewing process, Deven faces increasingly bewildering circumstances, especially when he encounters the lifestyle of the great poet Nur.
For Mr. Merchant, who was born in Bombay, making the film was a chance to look into India's disappearing traditions. "He has a great feeling for Urdu poetry and also for Indian music, and I think this story gave him the opportunity to really indulge that passion," Professor Desai said. Indeed, Mr. Merchant supplemented her script with examples of actual Urdu poetry drawn from the works of the late Faiz Ahmed Faiz, who is considered among the preeminent Urdu poets of this century.
In Custody, which is in Urdu with English subtitles, features three major stars: Shashi Kapoor (Nur), star of nearly 250 Hindi films, five earlier Merchant-Ivory Productions and numerous international films; and Om Puri (Deven) and Shabana Azmi (Imtiaz Begum), both stars of Hindi and international films, including the 1992 movie City of Joy.
The Boston-area premiere ofIn Custody will take place July 1-7 at the Brattle Theater, 40 Brattle St., Cambridge. For information call 876-6837.
A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 36).