the mystic masseur (2002)


director: ismail merchant

aasif mandvi, om puri, ayesha dharker, james fox

The Mystic Masseur is a colonial story, the sort that director Ismail Merchant has come to own with films like Shakespeare Wallah, Heat and Dust and Cotton Mary, stories set in parts of the world still in thrall to some seductive but tragic vision of England in spite of distance and even political independence.

Merchant has also helped define that England, and the English, with films like Howard's End, The Remains of the Day, and A Room With a View. It's remarkable that those films, so driven by strong storylines, should bear so little resemblance to a notably untidy, unfocused work like The Mystic Masseur. Working as he often does from a work of fiction - in this case, a novel by V.S. Naipaul - Merchant manages to fall prey to almost every mistake that a lesser director succumbs to, from reliance on voiceovers to intrusive cameos to a seeming ignorance of basic story structure.

The film follows Ganesh, a bright and ambitious young Trinidadian Hindu as he tries to become a famous author. We first see him as an older man, rapturously visiting Oxford for the first time, after which the film plunges back to his rise through Trinidadian society, first as an unsuccessful pamphleteer, driven to take up his late father's trade as therapeutic masseur. Patently a fraud, he still becomes a success, coming to dominate the island's rural Indian community, finally winning a seat in parliament where he realizes the tragic emptiness of ambition.

Aasif Mandvi does a good job with Ganesh, playing him convincingly as both naive and canny, the keys and character flaws behind his rise. The surrounding cast, including some venerable actors from Indian communities all over the world, handle the musical Trinidadian patois well, and the unquestioning reverence for the printed word, both a joke and a theme in the first half of the film, is depicted with humour and wryness.

But Ganesh's story never seems to catch fire, mostly because Merchant can't seem to see the difference between scenes - of which there are a great many - and drama. Ganesh is a fraud, and his books mostly banal, but Merchant never finds the tragedy in this, letting him coast through his career before a "fall" that's nothing of the sort - more of a gentle subsidence into venerability. At different points in the film, we see possibilities for tragedy, for satire, for real moments of revelation about colonial life, but the director is intent instead on treating his characters with gentle bemusement, an approach that, frankly, feels like condescension.