The Mystic Masseur

Based on Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul's 1957 debut novel and set in the colonial Trinidad of his youth, this picaresque tale, which unfolds in the 1940s and '50s, chronicles an aspiring writer's rise from anonymous rural poverty to local renown as a guru. Played out against the background of the Indian community in Trinidad, producer and occasional director...read more

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Reviewed by Maitland McDonagh
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Based on Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul's 1957 debut novel and set in the colonial Trinidad of his youth, this picaresque tale, which unfolds in the 1940s and '50s, chronicles an aspiring writer's rise from anonymous rural poverty to local renown as a guru. Played out against the background of the Indian community in Trinidad, producer and occasional director Ismail Merchant's immensely respectful film features luscious scenery, a profusion of incidents and emphatic performances. But overall, it's a curiously lifeless affair. Country-born school teacher Ganesh Ramsumair (Aasif Mandvi) possesses a voracious love of literature and learning, but is stymied by local bias against people of Indian descent. Following the sudden death of his father, a locally renowned masseur, Ganesh returns to his country roots to write and finds unexpected support from village wheeler-dealer Ramlogan (Om Puri). Ramlogan also introduces Ganesh to his lovely and eccentrically educated daughter, Leela (Ayesha Dharker), who has a passion for punctuation. After their marriage, Ganesh painstakingly pens "A Hundred and One Questions and Answers on the Hindu Religion," printing copies at his own expense. A combination of the book's less-than-enthusiastic reception and Ganesh's roadside encounter with a loony Dharma bum named Mr. Stewart (James Fox) drives the budding author to try his hand at becoming a masseur; by tradition, rural masseurs treat a wide variety of ailments and Ganesh may well have inherited his father's healing touch. But business is stagnant until he reinvents himself as a holy man, donning traditional Indian garb and treating ailments of the spirit as well as the flesh. Ganesh's first success is Partap, a nervous, nightmare-haunted child whom Ganesh's improvised treatment releases from his fears. Word of Ganesh's powers travels quickly, and his growing reputation as a visionary revitalizes his writing career, eventually leading him to enter local politics. Partap, meanwhile, grows into a bookish young man (Jimi Mistry) who hopes to attend Oxford University (as did Naipaul), but in the meantime joins the growing ranks of Ganesh's supporters. Naipaul's own heritage clearly inflects this loving, gently humorous examination of the world of ethnic Indians in Caribbean Trinidad, and the sheer novelty of the milieu is fascinating. But the particulars of Ganesh's rise and fall are strangely undramatic: Nothing vital ever seems to be at stake, even when his luck sours and failure looms. This absence of conflict gives the film a pleasant, soothing rhythm, but robs it of vitality.

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  • Released: 2002
  • Rating: PG
  • Review: Based on Nobel Prize-winner V.S. Naipaul's 1957 debut novel and set in the colonial Trinidad of his youth, this picaresque tale, which unfolds in the 1940s and '50s, chronicles an aspiring writer's rise from anonymous rural poverty to local renown as a gur… (more)

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