Dir: Ismail Merchant. UK. 2001. 117mins.
The Mystic Masseur plays to the proven strengths of the Merchant-Ivory team: like much of their previous work, it depicts the contrast and clash of cultures in an exotic arena, backed by a literary pedigree, in this case VS Naipaul's first novel. A significant advance over Ismail Merchant's previous forays into direction (In Custody, The Proprietor and Cotton Mary), The Mystic Masseur none the less suffers from a softness of narrative focus, especially in the title character, and lack of satirical bite. However the irrepressible good humour and unusual setting will delight Merchant-Ivory's traditional audience, which could be broadened by Naipaul's Nobel Prize for Literature last month. Modest arthouse and ancillary sales look solid and the film should have no trouble recouping its £1.7m budget. Film also plays in the London film festival.
The story opens at Oxford University in 1954, where Partap, a young Trinidadian student of Indian origin (Mistry), prepares to greet an important visiting statesman. This individual turns out to be Ganesh (Mandvi), a key figure from his past. A long flashback reveals the two men's connection.
In 1943, Ganesh, then a schoolteacher in the island's capital, Port of Spain, travels home to his country village for his father's funeral. The eligible young man swiftly attracts the attention of a roguish shopkeeper (Puri) who engineers a match between him and his own daughter Leela (Dharker). Settling with his bride in a remote village, Ganesh pursues his long-held ambition to become a writer.
The marriage is put under stress by the couple's inability to have children and by money troubles, especially when Ganeshi's first opus, a slim volume called 101 Questions And Answers On The Hindu Religion, is a total flop. But after he successfully cures a small boy - the young Partap - of depression, he finds a new vocation as a healer with mystical powers.
As his fame grows, Ganesh, who has started to affect flamboyant Indian dress and now goes by the name of "Pundit", churns out a never-ending series of bestsellers and becomes a popular folk hero. Persuaded to enter politics, he suddenly finds himself way out of his depth when he becomes a pawn in the confrontation between the colonial British government and the independence movement.
These latter sections are the least successful, and despite its ample length, the film doesn't nail the detail of this social change or the complex relationships between Trinidad's various ethnic and social communities. In particular The Pundit himself, both as written and as played by Mandvi, could be either a comically innocent idealist buffeted by the Fates or a shallow opportunist corrupted by his brief taste of power.
The use of Partap as narrator is also uneasy: introduced in the first scene, he disappears for nearly half the feature, before returning to deliver long chunks of voice-over exposition. In fairness to the screenwriter Caryl Phillips - also from the West Indies and a distinguished author in his own right - these problems could be partly due to Naipaul's own notorious ambivalence towards his birthplace.
As usual with Merchant, the budget is all on display in a series of gorgeous, colourful images of a country rarely seen in films. Performances are all immensely likeable if on the broad side, notably a peculiar cameo by James Fox as an airheaded proto-hippie ("I'm an Indian," he explains. "Kashmiri. Originally from Chichester"). The music attractively combines the story's different cultural components.
Prod cos: Merchant Ivory
Co-prods: Pritish Nandy, Video Associates
Int'l sales: Global Cinema Group
Exec prod: Paul Bradley
Prods: Nayeem Hafizka, Richard Hawley
Scr: Caryl Phillips, based on the novel by VS Naipaul
Cinematography: Ernie Vincze
Prod des: Lucy Richardson
Ed: Roberto Silvi
Music: Richard Robbins, Zakir Hussain
Main cast: Aasif Mandvi, Om Puri, Ayesha Dharker, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jimi Mistry, James Fox