Movie review, 'The Mystic Masseur'

EntertainmentMoviesTrinidad and TobagoDeathEnglandAasif MandviHoratio Alger

Perhaps one way to ensure the availability of delightful films is to give filmmakers a wee budget and a fabulous story. This certainly worked for "The Mystic Masseur," a warm-hearted gem of a film based on the V.S. Naipaul novel of the same name. It's a character study in which a man learns the value of being where he is. It's Walter Mitty and Horatio Alger, with a bit of Indian mysticism thrown in.

Ganesh Ransumair (Aasif Mandvi) is a man with roots in small-town Trinidad. But he's obsessed with books and education - a world of intellect completely at odds with life in his rural, self-contained village. You're born there, you live there, you work and die there. But Ganesh wants to write a book. The villagers scoff at his ambition even as they support him, not because they don't want him to succeed but because such things are simply beyond their comprehension.

"A man like you should be writing books," says his Auntie (a warm portrayal by Zohra Segal). "An intellectual is just what Fuente Grove needs," Ganesh is assured by the scheming Ramlogan (lauded Indian actor Om Puri), who is more interested in finding a suitable mate for his daughter Leela than in seeing Ganesh realize his dreams.

After the death of his father, who was the village masseur (part doctor, part seer), Ganesh is encouraged to pick up where his dad left off. He resists, but after his first book, "101 Questions and Answers on the Hindu Religion," fails, Ganesh gives in.

He tries to merge his two worlds - the empirical one of pen and paper and the ethereal one of mysticism - settling on common sense to solve most problems.

But rather than setting up Ganesh as a scam artist who doubts the path he stumbles down, "Masseur" makes Ganesh a believer. He develops a faith in his "gift" as unshakable as his conviction that he is destined to become a famous writer. And the two paths merge. As Ganesh becomes a successful masseur, people buy his books because of his notoriety as a healer.

As Ganesh's fame grows, he tries his hand at politics and gets a seat at the table of power, even though the Trinidadian Hindus are British subjects. One scene at a dinner party is perfectly handled: The island's ruler mentions that Trinidad's Indian community won't be seeking independence from the Empire. Amid the nods of assent, Ganesh's face tells an eloquent story as it registers surprise, uncertainty and finally an uncomfortable silence.

Humor is the dominant theme in this movie, but not the laugh-out-loud type. Director Ismael Merchant goes for a pleasant, fuzzy feeling, a constant smile at the lovely Trinidad dialect spoken by the villagers and at Ganesh coming to the realization that hey, maybe he can do something with mysticism business.

But through it all, Ganesh wants to "go to England, to stand among books in a place of learning." And you know he's going to make it because "Masseur" is just that kind of film. The surprise comes in the way Ganesh makes it, and the lessons even an educated man can learn. "Masseur" allows you to make the journey right alongside Ganesh, and after coming to the same realization that he does, you'll leave the theater smiling.

3 stars
"The Mystic Masseur"

Directed by Ismael Merchant; written by Caryl Phillips, based on a novel by V.S. Naipaul; photographed by Ernie A. Vincze; production designed by Lucy Richardson; produced by Richard Hawley, Nayeem Hafizka. A Merchant Ivory release; opens Friday at the Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 1:58. No MPAA rating (suitable for all ages).
Ganesh Ransumair - Aasif Mandvi
Ramlogan - Om Puri
Leela - Ayesha Dharker
Mr. Stewart - James Fox Auntie - Zohra Segal

Kevin M. Williams is a Chicago Tribune staff writer.

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