REVIEW: The "Mystic" Producer; Ismail Merchant's "Mystic Masseur" Reshuffles Naipaul
by Brandon Judell
(indieWIRE/05.02.02) — Bombay-born Ismail Merchant is best known as the production half of the Merchant-Ivory empire.” Well, Mr. Merchant every once in a while directs. Sometimes to hurrahs as with his engrossing “In Custody,” a comic exploration of the life of a famous Urdu poet who’s about to spout his final ode. And sometimes less successfully, as with “The Proprietor,” in which Jeanne Moreau is haunted by the ghost of her dressmaking mom who was killed by the Nazis.
In his current release, “The Mystic Masseur,” which is based on a novel by last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul, he explores the life of a not-to-the-manner-born Indian living in Trinidad.
The ever-ambitious Ganesh begins as a failed school teacher, finds success as an untrained masseur and self-published author, and then starts raking in the cash as a mystic healer, taxi-fleet owner, and politician before the colonizing British swat him down a bit to where they want him.
On the very last page of this delicious read, Naipaul has the now tastefully dressed Ganesh arriving in England as a gelded mouthpiece for his home country. If that weren’t enough, Ganesh has changed his name to a moniker that totally consigns to the grave his Indian heritage. Then when an old Trinidadian acquaintance greets him at the train station, the new Ganesh, with an extreme stiff upper lip, cold-shoulders him.
The result for the reader is a mental blow of staggering impact. You have just spent a few hundred pages with a charming dreamer who for all his faults is a man of the people. Ganesh has always to a degree been self-centered and self-glorifying. But at heart, he was a lovable, comic, naive bungler who for some odd reason flourishes. In the end, though, he’s achieved too much and can’t weather the storms of power. To stay afloat, he becomes a vapid void, a sell-out to everything he once held dear.
Now the only reason that I’m sharing the finale of the novel with you is that in Merchant’s and screenwriter Caryl Phillips‘ mostly faithful adaptation, the ending becomes the beginning. This is understandable if you’re a fan of Merchant/Ivory films.
What could stir the hearts of Anglophile arthouse audiences more than a train grandly bustling into a British train station as the opening credits roll by? The billowing smoke. The chugger-chugger-chug of the wheels. I mean starting out in an impoverished Trinidad village populated by Indian transplants, well, that’s just a bit too visually seedy. Let’s give the crowds what they want for a few minutes before we spring the real story on them. The problem is that by doing so, the film loses the total impact of the surprise of Ganesh’s extreme vainglorious and dissembling transformation. We don’t even understand and can’t understand the significance of Ganesh’s name change in the first five minutes.
But this act of literary treason might have occurred because Merchant and Phillips have fallen in love with their lead character and want you to do the same. In fact, the narrator’s last line in the film here is “The Pundit has done his job. He had written his books. And now he was at peace.” And he is. This Ganesh has returned to his wife and his roots. He’s learned his lesson. Naipaul’s Ganesh hasn’t.
So does the film still work if its inspiration’s cynicism has been defanged? Yes and no.
Where else has the plight of Indians in Trinidad been told? And why were the Indians in Trinidad in the first place? Well, after the country’s 1834 emancipation and slavery was abolished, the Brits started importing labor: the Chinese, Portuguese, needy Europeans, and Indians. The promises that were made to these workers were relentlessly broken, and many found their lives only a few notches better than the slaves before them.
“The Mystic Masseur” takes place a century later in 1943. Ganesh (Aasif Mandvi) has just quit his job as a schoolteacher in Port of Spain and returns home to his small village to learn his father has died. “Don’t weep, Ganesh,” his wise Auntie (Zohra Segal) advises, “We’re all going to the same place.”
Ganesh doesn’t weep for long, especially since the local shop owner Ramlogan (Om Puri) has the young man’s future planned out, which includes marrying his daughter Leela (Ayesha Dharker). Now with a wife to ignore, Ganesh is set. “A man is only as big as his ambition” is his motto. “One day I stand at center of world literature,” he proclaims.
The colors, the music, and the customs of the Indian/Trinidadian culture are enveloping here. The cast is fine, especially Puri, Segal and Dharker. But without a pay-off, the trip feels a little too open-ended. Indefinite. Structureless.
Maybe Mr. Merchant should just re-watch a few of the films he’s so superbly produced. One thing James Ivory has never been afraid to be is vicious.