IN THE 1940s TRINIDAD DESCRIBED
in Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul's first novel, The Mystic Masseur, “massagers” — men who claimed to have a mysterious gift for healing the sick and soothing troubled souls — were as endemic to the Indian immigrant community of that underdeveloped island as storefront psychics are to modern-day Los Angeles. Naipaul's hero, Ganesh Ramsumair (Aasif Mandvi), is the real deal, however, although his gifts run more to pop psychology than they do to holy magic. Destined to become — howsoever briefly — Trinidad's most popular Indian politician, Ganesh, truth to tell, would rather be reading or, better yet, writing. In a country still under the thumb of the British Empire, he is that rare thing, a college graduate, and as such has a grand dream, which he proclaims, in the island patois, for all to hear: “Someday I going to stand at the center of world literature.”
The Indian-born director Ismail Merchant, whose sweet-natured new film of Naipaul's 1957 novel is faithful to a fault, is equally book-mad, having devoted most of his life to producing the films of director James Ivory, most of which were adapted from masterpieces of 20th-century literature, including, most famously, E.M. Forster's A Room With a View and Howards End. For this, one of his rare outings as a director, Merchant found a kindred spirit in Ganesh, who runs his hands lovingly over the spines of the great classics that he obsessively orders by mail. His wife, Leela (Ayesha Dharker), becomes increasingly alarmed, again and again reminding her husband that all this reading and writing isn't putting food on the table. It's true; Ganesh's first book is woefully slow in coming, and when it does, it's a thin, self-published pamphlet on the Hindu religion that initially sells about three copies. Desperate to prove his worth to both Leela and her money-obsessed father (the great Om Puri), Ganesh dons loincloth and turban and begins, with impressive wit and imagination, to apply his learning to the physical, emotional and spiritual travails of his fellow Hindus. He solves several unsolvable cases, including the vexing problem of Lover Boy, a racing champ whose affection for his bicycle is so profound he can't stop humping it. His confidence growing, Ganesh writes better, thicker books that sell like hotcakes, and soon he is revered, rich and anxious for a career in politics. (In present-day America, he'd have his own talk show.)
Unfortunately for Ganesh, Naipaul, whose love-hate relationship with the colonial milieu and mentality tilted toward hostile in his middle years, doesn't appear to believe the people of Trinidad capable of governing themselves, a view the filmmakers make little effort to mitigate. These are unsophisticated people, says Naipaul, and never so much so as when aping the manners of their colonial masters. Accordingly, Merchant and screenwriter Caryl Phillips have left intact an unsettling scene in which Ganesh and his countrymen make fools of themselves at a fancy dinner put on by the British governor, a scene that confirms the thought behind the governor's raised brow, that these country bumpkins do indeed need guidance from their betters. Naipaul, to his credit, made clear Ganesh's desire to materially and spiritually help the people of his community, a fact Phillips fails to emphasize, leaving the impression that Ganesh is simply a con artist, albeit a goodhearted one.
In the end, though, the filmmakers are interested less in Naipaul's provocative world-view and more in his people, all of whom are wonderfully played, particularly by the lovely Dharker and James Fox, who — in two scenes as a God-mad British expatriate — is looser and more sensual than he's been in years. The film is being sold as a comedy, and it is amusing. Secretly, though, it's a romance, with Merchant's roving camera discerning the tempestuous love triangle at the heart of Naipaul's novel, the one involving Ganesh, Leela, and all those beautifully bound books just waiting to be devoured.
THE MYSTIC MASSEUR | Directed by ISMAIL MERCHANT | Written by CARYL PHILLIPS, based on the novel by V.S. NAIPAUL | Produced by NAYEEM HAFIZKA and RICHARD HAWLEY | Released by THINKFilm | At Landmark Westside Pavilion, Laemmle Pasadena and Edwards University 6