Although highly regarded in many circles — especially those that consider Masterpiece Theatre the ne plus ultra of culture — I can’t say that I number the films of Merchant-Ivory among my more cherished moviegoing memories. Even during the films of theirs that I admire, I never quite escape the sense of being dosed with some kind of nasty medicine that’s supposed to be good for me. It’s as if these are movies made by and for people who don’t really like movies, but find them a convenient middle-brow substitute for Literature.
As a general rule, Merchant produces and Ivory directs their collaborations, but The Mystic Masseur is one of the few occasions where Merchant has directed a film of his own — and the results are distinctive. While the tone is not entirely dissimilar to that of their other films, the approach is considerably more playful.
It’s difficult for me to envision an Ivory film that features a sequence involving a cross-country bicyclist attempting to marry his bicycle. Similarly, I absolutely cannot conceive of an Ivory film with a lengthy, unsteady hand-held tracking shot.
While I’m willing to admit that the tracking shot may well be the result of Merchant’s well-known parsimony, I found the entire experience a good deal more lively and entertaining than I’d expected. Not that The Mystic Masseur’s quietly humorous, gentle, generally predictable story is what you might call “action-packed,” but it moves nicely, has an effortless gracefulness, and is constantly entertaining.
Based on the novel by V.S. Naipaul, Merchant is blessed with a nicely quirky tale about Ganesh (Aasif Mandvi), an Indian in Trinidad who dreams of being a writer and is encouraged in this notion by an English expatriate, Mr. Stewart (James Fox). The story — told by one of his most faithful followers (Jimi Mistry) — follows his somewhat unusual path to his goal. A simple, but wry man who comments on his future wife’s attempts at literacy by noting that she “know a lot punctuation”, Ganesh sets himself up as a masseur and then a healer and mystic. Once he’s become a Trinidad celebrity , his books sell on the strength of his minor — and dubiously earned — fame. This leads him into Trinidad politics where he quickly becomes disillusioned when he realizes he’s nothing more than a tool of the ruling British Empire — something even the utterly unhinged Mr. Stewart realizes before the fact.
This is a simple tale that’s been told one way and another many times over the years, but its beauty and charm lies in its collective details. The character of Ganesh is a tricky one that Merchant and his star only just manage to pull off. Even though Ganesh’s success is based in large part on trickery (Ganesh himself is clearly aware of the specious nature of his healing powers), there’s never any doubt that his motives are if not quite noble, then at least well-intended, and that he believes in both his status as the local pundit (a kind of touring company King Solomon) and his “literary” mission.
What is likely to throw off many viewers is the fact that Ganesh’s story is neither exactly heroic, nor tragic. The man never achieves the greatness he feels he’s destined for, but neither does he come to the “bad end” the story might seem to require (at least in terms of Western literature). Instead, The Mystic Masseur is a gentle endorsement of the idea that life happens to you while you’re busy making plans for it. Eschewing large scale dramatics for simple — and occasionally simplistic — home truths, the film is a loving tribute to its characters and the foibles of Indian society in the West Indies under British rule. What could so easily have become just another cautionary fable is allowed to play out as a clever, charming tale — as pleasantly simple in its own way as its self-dramatizing characters.
For those interested in catching this unusual little film, run — do not walk — to the Fine Arts today or tomorrow, because Thursday is its final day in town.