Charmed by THE MYSTIC MASSEUR
I didn’t want The Mystic Masseur to end. Focusing on one man’s burning desire to become an author, this engrossing Merchant Ivory film evoked my own feelings about writing. "Put my picture on the cover," Ganesh, played brilliantly by Aasif Mandvi, insists to the publisher of his first book, a catechism about the Hindu religion. Listening to that simple instruction, I couldn’t help thinking I should have asked for the same thing in connection with my life-at-the-movies memoir, Confessions of a Movie Addict. (Still, Ganesh is much more distinguished looking than I am, so maybe not.)
The Mystic Masseur gained my rapt attention for more reasons than its amusing revelations about wannabe authors. The film showcases Mandvi’s (The Siege) acting versatility as his character ages from an ambitious young man to an elderly retiree. It also proves why Om Puri (East is East) has become one of India’s most revered movie stars. Although portraying a manipulative and dominating father-in-law, Puri adds much of the film's humor and aroused my empathy for the flawed person he played. I realized early-on that his character’s humble mannerisms probably hid an iron will. And Ismail Merchant (The Proprietor) directed this gem with a classy touch I’ve come to expect from Merchant Ivory productions. I’m always impressed with the exquisite "sense of place" shining through so colorfully in these films.
The partnership of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant must be one of the longest in show biz history. Since 1963, Merchant Ivory Productions, responsible for such high-quality films as A Room with a View and Remains of the Day (both directed by Ivory), has released a total of 44 films which have either won or been nominated for more than 70 international awards, winning six Oscars and seven British Academy Awards.
Set in Trinidad and based on Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul’s comic novel, The Mystic Masseur begins in the 1940s and follows the adventures of Ganesh Ransumair, a schoolteacher in Port of Spain, the capital city. After returning to the village of his birth for his father’s burial, Ganesh decides to stay there so he can devote his time to writing. Both his wise old auntie (Zohra Segal) and Ramolgan (Puri), an overly friendly neighbor, encourage him.
Ganesh marries Leela, (Ayesha Dhaker), Ramolgan's beautiful daughter, but when there’s trouble making ends meet, Leela shows little patience with her husband. She moves back in with her father for awhile. My own husband claims he understood Leela's feelings. "It's not easy being the spouse of an obsessed writer," he tells me.
Still, Ganesh continues to write. His biggest booster is an enthusiastic friend called Beharry (Sanjeev Bhaskar) who helps him finish his book. When the book fails to sell, Ganesh turns to "healing" and develops a reputation as a village healer/writer with remarkable skills -- which causes the sales of his books to soar. Later, because of his popularity, the mystic masseur unwisely enters politics. It seems Trinidad is on the verge of political independence, and this "man of the people" is out of his element in the big city.
A humanistic "rags to riches" story, The Mystic Masseur issues a warning about how ambition can tempt an honest man. Yes, the endearing Ganesh’s decency and hard work triumph in the end, but I still wanted to see even more about his intriguing life. A delightful, rewarding cinematic experience!
(Released by Merchant-Ivory Productions/ThinkFilm Inc. and rated "PG" for mild language.)