Muhafiz – In Custody

The late Ismail Merchant’s Muhafiz (1994; “In Custody”) is an elegy to a dying culture and a dying language. For those of us who have loved this culture, it is also a witness of a part of ourselves that will die if we do not take care to nurture it.

Nur Shahjahanabadi is an ailing and aged Urdu poet who few appreciate any longer. He is surrounded by men and women with little sensitivity to poetry, but much lust for fame, money, or for an escape from their empty lives. A sincere admirer, Deven, tries to meet Nur Sahab to record his poetry on paper and audio before the poet passes away into eternity, much of his work unpreserved. Muhafiz records, with deep love and sadness, the last days of Nur Sahab, symbolising through him, the Urdu language, all it stood for, and all it has been replaced by.

Certainly, Urdu is not factually dead. Its vocabulary permeates our daily conversations and our popular culture. But Urdu also symbolised a certain tenderness of expression, a sensitivity to being, a beauty of the imagination – all of which were reflected in the script, the architecture, the music, the clothes of those who breathed in its culture. Meditative, mournful, and deeply beautiful, Muhafiz is a portrait of the passing away of that culture and the birth of another one, far more professional, mercenary, and anxious and hurried in its dealings.


Only a person deeply in love with Urdu poetry could have directed this film. Every few minutes one hears a beautiful couplet from Urdu literature, most often one by perhaps its greatest poet – Faiz Ahmed Faiz – recited in the passionate, earnest voice of an elderly Shashi Kapoor who plays the lead character of Nur Sahab. The film starts with a poem that is among Faiz’s most evocative, set to music by Ustad Zakir Husain and Ustad Sultan Khan –

aaj ek harf ko phir dhoondta phirta hai khayaal
harf-e-ulfat koi dildaar nazar ho jaise
jisse milti hai nazar bosa-e-lab ki surat
itna raushan ki sar-e-mauja-e-zar ho jaise
sohbat-e-yaar mein aaghaaz-e-tarab ki surat
aaj ek harf ko phir dhoondta phirta hai khayaal

today, once again, a thought searches for a word
a word that brims with passion, as the gaze of the lover
a word soft as a kiss on the lips
a word that shines like a sea of gold
a word that evokes the joys of the beloved’s embrace
today, once again, a thought searches for a word

It ends with another, almost untranslatable nazm by Faiz, this time among his most sad, yet beautiful, sang over visuals of Nur Sahab’s deceased body being carried to the cemetery, in the backdrop of a grand, Mughal mosque, as the sun sets over the old city of Bhopal.

aaj baazaar mein , pa-bajaulaan chalo

haakim-e-shehr bhi
majma-e-aam bhi
teer-e-ilzaam bhi
sang-e-dushnaam bhi
subh-e-nashaad bhi
roz-e-nakaam bhi

inka dumsaaz apne siva kaun hai
shehr-e-jaana mein ab ba-safa kaun hai
dast-e-qaatil ke shaayaan raha kaun hai
rakht-e-dil baandh lo, dil figaaron chalo
phir hum hi qatl ho aayein yaaron, chalo
aaj baazaar mein pa-bajaulaan chalo

walk today, friends, through the baazaar, feet enchained
past the gaping crowds
past the great and the small
past the arrows of slander
past the slings of humiliation
past the unhappy dawn
and past the failed afternoon

in who can these confide, but us?
who alone here is faithful, but us?
and who is worthy of the executioner’s hands?
prepare yourselves, with your aching hearts
come friends, let us walk towards our death

Shot lovingly against the backdrop of the medieval architecture of old Bhopal, populated by havelis, forts and mosques, Muhafiz is at once sad and beautiful. Like Terrence Malick’s Days of HeavenMuhafiz is shot for a large part at sunset, giving the film a special hue of sepia. Admittedly, the film has its flaws and at times, parts of it seem irrelevant and verbose, but the film is beautiful enough to linger in the memory for long after it is over. For a lover of Urdu poetry it is going to be a deeply touching film, for others, a fascinating, meditative, unique glimpse into a world they may rarely get an opportunity to see.

muhafiz 1

Perhaps the best summary of the film, of its lead character, and of what he symbolises, is in the last line of dialogue in the film, an excerpt from a poem sent by Nur Sahab to Deven as his parting gift to the world (originally by Faiz) –

jo ruke to koh-e-garaan thay hum
jo chale to jaan se guzar gaye
raah-e-yaar humne qadam qadam
tujhe yaadgaar bana diya

once, i was glorious as a mountain
today, i depart from this world
oh path to the beloved, at each step

i made a shrine to your beauty

~ by tdcatss on June 20, 2015.

9 Responses to “Muhafiz – In Custody”

  1. How beautiful. I must watch the movie.

  2. Both gaman and muhafiz are beautiful movies, especially in their poetic expressions.

    • I saw the link for the move Gaman when I watched Muhafiz, which was very beautiful. I will definitely watch that too, thanks.

      • I’m happy you liked Muhafiz. Gaman is of course very different, it is more about everyday life, about the meaning of life and at least in my understanding, develops its distinctive film language in subtle but fascinating ways. I’d say Gaman touched me more deeply as a whole while Muhafiz had certain scenes which I felt are as good as any film scenes I have ever seen.

        The comment by ‘anonymous’ was not by me, in case you thought so :)

      • Ah well thank you for that feedback. I look forward to watching Gaman now.

  3. […] Muhafiz, In Custody – A Nook in the Woods […]

  4. What a beautiful notion that a thought is searching for a word, like a unseen connection

  5. Yes, it’s among Faiz’s best, I feel. Here is the whole poem:

  6. […] Muhafiz, In Custody – A Nook in the Woods […]

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