The Mystic masseur
A Film by Ismail Merchant
written by Caryl Phillips


In the new film from the Merchant/Ivory team, Ismail Merchant - the Indian-born half of the team who usually serves as producer but here takes the helm as director - returns, in a sense, to his roots. The result is a mostly charming, visually beautiful film with wonderful, delicate touches of humor and psychological insight which unfortunately never resolves into anything truly compelling.

The film is an adaptation of a novel, as most of the team's most successful projects have been, but in this case it is a novel by V.S. Naipul, the Trinidadian of Indian descent who won the Nobel Prize for Literature a few years ago. The Mystic Masseur was Naipul's first published novel. It reflects his own life experience, and is in fact based on autobiographical elements.

It is the story of Ganesh, himself an educated Trinidadian of Indian descent, who, when he loses his job as a school teacher, decides to become an author. The death of his father in a rural island village, leads him out of Port Of Spain and into the countryside, where his bucolic countrymen both aid and hinder his project.

Over the course of the film, Ganesh finds unexpected success in his "day-job," continuing his father's practice as the village masseur. He also writes a number of books and gets them published and distributed, bringing him a comfortable living and a national reputation. His growing influence in the Hindu community leads to apparent political power and eventually a place in the British Colonial Government of the island.

It is an interesting story and the cast of characters is varied and original, sharply drawn, idiosyncratic individuals all. The exotic location and culture and the historical background - the events take place against the background of the achievement of Indian independence from Britain and the beginnings of the break-up of the last elements of the British Empire - provide an engaging counterpoint to the main thrust of the narrative.

But the story falters in the film-makers' failure to complete the dramatic trajectory they set in motion. The first three-quarters of the movie, about Ganesh's struggle, the gradual attainment of his goals and his rise beyond his own aspirations, works well. The final quarter, which is (or seems to be) about his disillusionment with fame and political power is treated with such reserve and distance that his eventual fate becomes a matter of indifference.

The fault lies in the way the script is crafted. Instead of their regular screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, who penned their versions of such complex stories as E.M. Forster's Howard's End, this film is written by a relative novice, the Englishman Caryl Phillips, who has only a single previous feature film credit (as co-screenwriter) on his resume. This seems to have been a mistake.

Where Jhabvala is a master at extracting the emotional core of a scene with a minimum of fuss, Phillips' attempts at such subtle communication fall flat. Instead of the complex but inexpressible welter of suppressed emotions Jhabvala and James Ivory have been able to evoke in their collaborations, the emotional center of this film seems to fade, to evaporate just at the moment that should be the coda of an exciting life, adventurously and creatively lived.

But Phillips comes up short on that bane of the screenwriter's existence, "third act problems." This is shorthand for the screenwriter's inability to provide a convincing, pleasing resolution for the interesting characters and complicated situations he has created. The final scenes of The Mystic Masseur convey not quiet dignity and peace, but rather a kind of impassivity and lifelessness that seems totally out of step with the what has been established up to that point.

It is impossible to believe that someone with as much fire, as much creative energy, as much ambition as Ganesh simply goes home and sinks quietly back into the familiar routine, as the film suggests. Or if he does, a minimum of psychological insight indicates that it ought to require an epiphanous realization or pivotal event for him to do so, and it ought to engender a lifetime of reflections and reactions to his experience and his decisions.

But we are told that he simply goes home to the country and lives a life of simplicity and peace. We are offered no explanation except a vague disappointment engendered by the reaction of the crowd at a union demonstration in Port Of Spain, no vision of what that life is like and how it is connected to his previous adventures - and it appears as a plot device and simply deflates the whole situation that has been built up in the previous hour and a half.

There is little excuse for such lack of dramatic momentum. The events that build the flow include the realization of ambition, the temptation to the betrayal of principle, the arrogance and duplicity of politics, the choice between personal advantage and responsibility to ones ideals - all the stuff of great human drama. But Phillips and Merchant drop the ball and allow these important human conflicts to be dismissed without examination. consideration or comment.

Merchant is usually the production half of the Merchant/Ivory partnership, with James Ivory handling the directing chores. This is only his fourth outing as director, and it seems he has a lot to learn. The pace of the film is leisurely to the point of occasionally threatening to become soporific. This problem is compounded by a dramatic rhythm so even and monotonous that it lulls the viewer rather than stimulating.

Naipul's work is often atmospheric and character driven, with little emphasis on plot in the conventional, dramatic sense. But where Naipul manages to use the very lack of action and the subtle insight into character to make a coherent statement and create an emotionally resonant vision of a time and place, of a state of mind, this adaptation just seems to lose its sense of purpose and come to an "end" for no apparent reason.

It is disappointing that it does so, because the good parts of the film are quite good. Merchant has assembled a wonderful cast, including Bollywood and international superstar Om Puri, Broadway phenomenon Aasif Mandvi, Indian cultural icon Zohra Sehgal, and Merchant/Ivory regular James Fox.

They all acquit themselves with honor. Mandavi's Ganesh is a complex and interesting character, full of juice and intelligence, who grows visibly as he ages from a callow, driven youth to a mature pillar of the community. Puri's Ramlogan - Ganesh's father-in-law - is written as a bit of a stereotype of peasant cunning, but Puri's skill invests the character with significantly more than that.

Sehgal brings humor, affection and humility to her portrayal of Ganesh's devoted and hard-headed Auntie - without which the character might have become a superficial bore. Fox has a wonderful character bit as an eccentric British expatriate whose crossing of paths with Ganesh is both inspiring and cautionary - but the script doesn't give him enough of consequence to do.

The film is visually stunning. The Merchant/Ivory team have reached a high level of technical expertise in film imagery and this film, in spite of the absence of Great Houses and Society Cotillions, continues that tradition. The simple tropical beauty of Trinidad is always present.

Scenes like the opening credits sequence of the arrival of Ganesh's train in Oxford and later Ganesh's and Partap's tour of the city, as well as the formal reception at the Governor's Palace in Trinidad are masterfully handled. At the same time, much lower-key scenes, like Ganesh determinedly writing by lamp-light, or talking in bed with his wife, Leela (Ayesha Dharker) are handled with less flash but equally effective attention to lighting, point of view and composition.

One highlight is the musical number at Ganesh's and Leela's wedding, photographed with such verve and presence that the whole audience was swaying and bobbing their heads. The camera-work, the editing, the sound, the performance all come together in this scene with pleasing coordination. The spontaneous, communal joy of the wedding feast is made palpable.

With such skills and such successful moments, it is all the more disappointing that this promising film isn't much more satisfying overall. With a good idea, a story by one of world literature's acknowledged masters (whose writing perhaps is not terribly cinematic) and such a talented cast and crew, it seems as if Merchant should have been able to do more.

But there is much pleasure to be had in the parts of the film that do work well, and hopefully the learning experience for Merchant will lead to a fuller realization of his clearly intelligent and significant ambitions in the future.

That's my take on it. What's yours?