Adapted from the first novel by eventual Nobel winner V.S. Naipaul, "The Mystic Masseur" is not only based on a book, it is also a love note to the impressive power of the printed word, a charming tale of how an obsessive devotion to literature was the making of a charismatic man of the people.
"Mystic Masseur" is the fourth film to be directed by Ismail Merchant, also known as the producing half of the Merchant Ivory team. Understandably beguiled by his characters, Merchant is both amused by and respectful of their situation, taking delight in their irresistible sense of language and the rhythms of a distinctive culture. Taking place largely in the 1940s, "Mystic" brings sweet authenticity to a world twice removed.
As if being set in Trinidad's rural back of the beyond wasn't unusual enough, the story is peopled almost exclusively by Indians who have lived on the island for so long that their speech has taken on that unmistakable Caribbean lilt. No matter how nominally humble their station, words and how they are used are quite important to these individuals. There's an easy wit to their language, a sly sense of humor that screenwriter Caryl Phillips has exactly captured. The result is an eccentric, amusing fable that moves at an unhurried island pace, a picturesque tale that Merchant seems to have invested with an almost personal sense of spirit.
"The Mystic Masseur" opens with a brief 1954 prologue, as a young Oxford student from Trinidad waits at a train station to meet an important statesman from his homeland. The guest turns out to be Ganesh Ramusmair (Aasif Mandvi), an old friend from the student's boyhood who went from being a humble masseur-medical practitioner to a revered mystic to a popular politician. All because of a love of books.
In 1943, which the film flashes back to, Ganesh was a disgruntled schoolteacher in the capital city of Port of Spain and determined to write books. "One day," he tells his soon-to-be-ex-headmaster, "I'm standing at the center of world literature." His father's death draws Ganesh back to his country village. There, he makes the acquaintance of the Dickensian Ramlogan (the always excellent Om Puri), a genial rascal who runs the general store and is prone to saying oracular things like, "The place not dirty, just looks so."
With his eye always on the main chance, Ramlogan encourages Ganesh to marry his wide-eyed daughter, Leela, wonderfully played by Ayesha Dharker ("The Terrorist" and a cameo as the new Queen of Naboo in "Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones"). After a vivid wedding, the pair repair to a secluded cabin, where Ganesh declares, "The books I write gonna be my children. I'm gonna make sons and daughters out of literature."
Despite this passion, despite the encouragement of a local grocer who says that "only printed matter does matter," despite owning 932 books, the most anyone has ever seen, Ganesh finds that the production of his first book, "101 Questions and Answers About the Hindu Religion," is harder than he imagined. So hard in fact, that even Leela rebels and announces, "It's me or that blasted book."
But although he ends up writing many books, literature turns out to be only the beginning of Ganesh's story. "The Mystic Masseur" details his transformation into a healer with an island-wide reputation, a businessman, even a reforming politician. In Merchant's empathetic hands, it's the story not just of a life, but of a culture, a nation, a very civilization. As Ganesh says when he exults in Oxford's great library, "Everything begins here. Look at all these books."
MPAA rating: PG for mild language. Times guidelines: very mild material.
'The Mystic Masseur'
James Fox...Mr. Stewart
THINKFilm presents a Merchant Ivory production released by THINKFilm. Director Ismail Merchant. Producers Nayeem Hafizka, Richard Hawley. Executive producers Paul Bradley, Lawrence Duprey. Screenplay by Caryl Phillips, based on the novel by V.S. Naipaul. Cinematographer Ernie Vincze. Editor Roberto Silvi. Costume designer Michael O'Connor. Music Richard Robbins, Zakir Hussain. Production designer Lucy Richardson. Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes.
In limited release.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times