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'Mystic Masseur, The'

Meticulous 'Masseur'

Friday, June 07, 2002

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Movie Critic

Ganesh, a young Indian schoolteacher on the lush Caribbean island of Trinidad, has an incurable addiction -- to books. Any books. All books. It's not enough for him just to teach them. He must write them. But nobody in Port-of-Spain, the island's bustling capital, takes him seriously.

'The Mystic Masseur'

RATING: Unrated but PG in nature for political themes

STARRING: Aasif Mandvi, Ayesha Dharker

DIRECTOR: Ismail Merchant

WEB SITE: www.mystic-masseur.com



Can you go home again? Can you find support for your aspirations among the simple folks of your native village?

You can if you're willing and able to become a "Mystic Masseur" first. That's the healing profession of his late father, the ticket to Ganesh's future success, and the title of this charmingly eccentric film.

Directed by Ismail Merchant and based on the novel by Pulitzer-winner V.S. Naipaul, "Masseur" -- like much of Naipaul's writing -- is more of a rich slice of Indian community life than an intrinsically compelling narrative. But the beautifully etched characters and their time-space location in the British colonial independence struggles of the late 1940s give the picture an added depth of historical context.

Ganesh (Aasif Mandvi) is greeted by his father's sly old neighbor Ramlogan (Om Puri), who offers the welcome-home gift of his daughter Leela (Ayesha Dharker). Leela has something, in addition to great beauty, that wins Ganesh's heart: a keen interest in punctuation!

Soon enough, with her support and encouragement, Ganesh produces his first self-published opus: "A Hundred and One Questions and Answers on the Hindu Religion." OK, so it's not quite "Harry Potter" in terms of sales -- but it's a first step toward fame.

A more giant leap follows from Ganesh's day job: He's not really a very great masseur, but he finds that, by adding some theatrical F/X, he is able to effect the "mystical" cure of a boy named Partap (Jimi Mistry) -- and become a holy man in the process.

Word spreads. Book sales soars. Customers and disciples flock. Where commercial success reigns, can political success be far behind?

The Merchant-Ivory team, of course, has been responsible for some of the most marvelous films of the last two decades -- "Howard's End," "Remains of the Day," "Room With a View" and "The Europeans" among them. "Mystic Masseur" is not up to their highest level, but it is equally meticulous, visually and atmospherically elegant. You can smell the tropical breezes and the food cooking in the villages. You feel like an invited guest at the gorgeous ritualized wedding -- reminiscent of those four-hour epic Indian romances produced in the subcontinent itself.

On top of the fine portrayals by Mandvi and Dharker, you'll be treated to a delicious, quirky supporting performance by James Fox -- the only English actor in the cast -- as a loony local colonial leftover, who somehow inspires Ganesh.

It doesn't exactly "end," but simply winds down in a bittersweet, ironic way. The irony of affection, rather than the irony of contempt, is what occupies Merchant and Naipaul -- and any wise, non-mainstream viewers who give "Mystic Masseur" a chance.

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