The Mystic Masseur

| March 8, 2002

Naipaul must be much harder to adapt for the big screen than someone like E.M. Forster. Nevertheless, the literary-minded Merchant Ivory Productions treats us to an adept visualization of Naipaul’s first novel, The Mystic Masseur. This is a story filled with vibrant colors, larger than life characters and quiet redemption that is typical of Naipaul. Merchant and Ivory are in their element, reconstructing colonial Trinidad in loving detail, and the cast led by the talented Aasif Mandvi, manage to fill adequately the large and very three-dimensional shoes of Naipaul’s characters.
Mandvi plays Ganesh Ransumair, a schoolteacher in Port of Spain who goes home to his village when his father dies. Once there, he decides to follow through with his dream of becoming a writer. Writing the first book turns out to be quite an endeavor, with Ganesh’s new bride, Leela, quickly losing her patience with her husband’s inability to earn and his unfailing success at spending all their money on books. On the other hand, Leela’s father Ramlogan is convinced that his son-in-law is a great man – or at least one who will eventually earn a lot of money – and so he, along with Ganesh’s neighbor, Beharry, egg on the aspiring writer. If you’ve read anything by Naipaul, you know how vividly his characters are drawn up. The ensemble acting in The Mystic Masseur lives up these high expectations. Om Puri, an eminent Indian actor last seen in America in East is East (2000), plays Ramlogan as a scheming shopkeeper with that uniquely Indian regard for learning and learned people. The younger actors – Ayesha Dharker as Leela, Jimi Mistry as Partap, who becomes Ganesh’s assistant, and Sanjeev Bhaskar as Beharry – play as a team, and together, they form the perfect foil to the commanding screen presence of Aasif Mandvi’s Ganesh.
The skill of these actors, and the resplendent detail in which their characters are drawn up come into full play when, on Beharry’s advice, Ganesh decides to become the Mystic Masseur in order to sell his books. Ganesh’s father was a masseur and so everyone around him is convinced that he too has the magic touch. Since his book is about Hinduism, argues Beharry, Ganesh might as well dispense a little mysticism along with his other services. Ganesh succeeds, by highly colorful means, in curing little Partap of the “black cloud” over his head, and the Mystic Masseur’s reputation is established. At this point, the story takes a turn that shows Naipaul’s thorough understanding of modern India and Indians. Ganesh decides to enter politics, succeeds in getting elected, but becomes irrelevant as a leader of the people. The little details in the story of Ganesh’s political career are teased out so well that we feel as if we were part of this narrative. The credit for this should probably be shared equally between the author, the screenwriter, Caryl Phillips, and Mandvi.
The locales in which this story is set provides Merchant-Ivory with the opportunity to show off their photographic expertise. Most of the movie remains in Trinidad – sometimes in the countryside, and sometimes in Port of Spain – but it starts and returns to Oxford where Partap is now a student. The lush green of the West Indian villages, their sandy beaches and their sparkling blue waters make for a visual treat, as does the elegant architecture of Oxford. The story is so dense that you often forget about the surroundings in order to follow the characters. Nevertheless, the construction of each scene, the blending of the colors, and most importantly, the visual contrast between the place where The Mystic Masseur is held in the highest regard and Oxford, or even the governor’s mansion in Port of Spain, are dead on.
Filming a story by Naipaul must be doubly hard, because not only does he observe his characters in much greater emotional detail than either Forster or Henry James, he also creates impossibly detailed mental pictures. While a director would ideally like to visualize things his own way, it may be folly not to follow through with Naipaul’s images. Ismail Merchant does a good job of understanding Naipaul’s descriptions and making them part of his own vision of The Mystic Masseur. There are almost no false notes in this movie. Even when Dharker’s or Mistry’s acting falters a little, the rest of the picture is so complete, that we forgive them. Just when Merchant-Ivory’s colonial fare seemed to be becoming stale and irrelevant, they choose a gem of a story and film it with the deftness worthy of a brilliant storyteller like Naipaul.

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