Pilgrim's progress: Merchant Ivory brings V.S. Naipaul to the big screen in The Mystic Masseur.
Pilgrim's progress: Merchant Ivory brings V.S. Naipaul to the big screen in The Mystic Masseur.

Dream On

Merchant Ivory productions--Howard's End and A Room With a View being two of the most notable--are famous for their almost tactile sense of time and place. The company's latest effort, which was not directed by the team's customary director, James Ivory, but by its producing half, Ismail Merchant, is no exception. From the opening sequence of a train slowly and majestically entering an open-air rail station, steam billowing from it like great cumulus clouds, the viewer is enveloped by the languid yet stately atmosphere of England, circa 1955.

The bulk of the action actually takes place a decade earlier and a world apart--on the Caribbean island of Trinidad in the mid-1940s. These scenes prove equally evocative. Lush and tropical, they unfold in the same gentle, lilting rhythm as the colorful patois spoken by the islanders. Adapted from a semi-autobiographical novel by Nobel laureate V.S. Naipaul, The Mystic Masseur is a comedy of manners set amid Trinidad's large Indian population. It concerns Ganesh Ramsumair (Aasif Mandvi), an aspiring writer who leaves the city and returns to his family's small village after the death of his father, in the hopes that the rural setting will provide a tranquil environment for his writing. When his first book doesn't sell, Ganesh turns to his father's profession, faith healing. Despite an inauspicious beginning, he gradually gains a reputation as a master healer. That jump-starts his literary career, since suddenly everyone wants to buy a book by the legendary "mystic masseur."

The film has a gentle, mocking tone that manages to poke fun at the characters without maligning their dignity or inherent decency. This is especially true for Ganesh, who, despite endless pompous pronouncements and a woefully inflated self-image, also has a winsome naïveté about himself and a contagious exuberance about life. The viewer laughs at his excesses but also warms to his genuine enthusiasm and his unabashed love of literature and knowledge. Overall, its leisurely pace and lack of overt action will bore some filmgoers, while the movie's final section, during which Ganesh pursues his political aspirations, feels strangely hurried and less satisfying than the rest of the story. In keeping with its humorous, somewhat waggish tone, the film's message seems to be both an exhortation to pursue one's dreams and an admonition to be careful what you wish for.


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