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    The Mystic Masseur

    Losing their touch

    "The Mystic Masseur," a lush but shallow, Gump-like adaptation of V.S. Naipaul's novel, suggests that the Merchant Ivory magic is wearing thin.


    There's a scene in "The Mystic Masseur," the new film from Merchant Ivory, in which the title character cures a local villager who thinks that he can fly. He heals him by shaking his head, looking into the man's eyes, and simply saying, "No."

    Directed by: Ismail Merchant.
    Written by: Caryl Phillips from book by V.S. Naipaul.
    Cast: Om Puri, James Fox, Aasif Mandvi, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Ayesha Dharker, Jimi Mistry, Zohra Sehgal, Sakina Jaffrey, Grace Maharaj, Danesh Khan..

    Related links: Official site
    A certain type of magic used to have audiences in love with Merchant Ivory films — their unequaled beauty and richness (scenes of Venice from "A Room with A View"), their attention to detail (table settings in "Remains of the Day"), and their profound understanding of the human condition, however subtly manifested in a character ("Howard's End"). The magicians' sleeves are wearing thin, however, and the time may have come for the film gods to shake their heads at Merchant Ivory and simply say, "No."

    After agonizing recent work like "Jefferson in Paris" and "The Golden Bowl," it may come as no surprise that "The Mystic Masseur" is about as mystic and magical as an infomercial for Fast Abs.

    The film is set in colonial Trinidad where, as an opening text panel explains, a distinct Indian culture is emerging in the second half of the 19th century. The protagonist, Ganesh (played by Aasif Mandvi, creator of the off-Broadway hit "Sakina's Restaurant" a few years ago), is a young man who dreams of writing books. When his first book — written by copying sentences from other books — fails, he tries his hand at the massage business. In this he has even less success, scaring away the locals who feel more pain after his treatment than they had when they arrived. One day his luck changes with the realization that he can be more successful as a mystic "healer," or in other words, a charlatan. To give an idea of the scope of the film, we're now way past the halfway mark.

    As Ganesh's fame as a healer grows, so does his reputation and his ability to sell his books. He becomes a Trini celebrity and reaches the height of his power when, as a "voice of the people," he is elected to the Trinidad congress . . . where he promptly rolls over for the colonial government, plays patsy, becomes a Member of the British Empire (MBE), seemingly forgets all about "his people," travels to London to see Oxford (source of all books), and then goes home to live the rest of his life peacefully with his wife. To which the audience can sigh, "Ahh, what a nice story those Merchant Ivory boys make," echoing the voiceover of one of Ganesh's adoring fans that ends the film.

    Ganesh's story reminds us of Forrest Gump, a man too stupid to realize what a charmed life he lived, but who was somehow able to do amazing things, revealing a charming sensibility and honesty beneath his infantile intelligence. "The Mystic Masseur," on the other hand, delivers a paper-thin character, with no apparent virtue or morality, nothing but a sham of a man who cannot, or chooses not, to use his great fame or skill as a trickster for any greater good than his own book sales. The lack of genuine character growth and the shallow representation of "emerging Indian culture" results in a plodding race with a finish line composed of mud — this film goes nowhere fast and then just dies. Aside from the wonderful acting, beautiful on-location sets, and fantastic Trini accents, "The Mystic Masseur" offers nothing that a small-town drunk won't tell you about in the first 20 minutes of his life story, nothing but tall tales and amusing anecdotes. But at least that story ends quickly and comes with a drink for you to boot.

    MAY 3, 2002

    Reader comments on The Mystic Masseur:

  • [no subject]   from amelia, Dec 12, 2002
  • What about Nayeem Hafiska?   from Risa Williams, May 22, 2003
  • Nayeem Hafiska- the man in the shadows   from Risa Sealey, Sep 16, 2004

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