- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

Better late than never, Ismail Merchant has dipped into the V.S. Naipaul inventory and emerged with an enjoyable ramble of a comedy, "The Mystic Masseur," fondly derived from the author's first novel, published in 1957.
The source material is anecdotal and episodic rather than dramatic, so one readily cuts Mr. Merchant and screenwriter Caryl Phillips a bit of slack as they attempt to accentuate the tall-tale highlights and set a generous behavioral buffet for the cast, which demonstrates how exuberant and actable a Naipaul text can be.
Booked exclusively at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle, "Masseur" weds a colorful and accomplished ensemble of English-speaking and dialect-relishing Indian actors to evocative locations in Trinidad.
Mr. Merchant, usually the producing specialist in the prestigious Merchant-Ivory apparatus, seems looser and happier behind the camera than in his previous directing stints. It's easy to believe that working with this troupe would stimulate relaxed sensations, although sometimes Mr. Merchant's relaxation becomes indistinguishable from pokiness.
An inexplicable brainstorm also has prompted the filmmakers to begin their scenario with the book's kicker, leaving them shorthanded when a denouement would be useful. I can't recall the last likable movie that flattened out so conspicuously in the closing stages.
Fortunately, you feel too indebted to the performers to hold a serious grudge against the filmmakers.
The nature of the material also cushions the structural pratfall. Even people who haven't read the book may suspect that luxuriating in humorous characterization is its most rewarding aspect.
While it's rolling merrily along as a kind of exotic vaudeville showcase, thriving on stock characters who personify incorrigible, enduring human types, the movie also reminds readers that there was a less austere V.S. Naipaul at the beginning of his literary career. Indeed, the Trinidad of his provincial youth seemed to provide the author with as rich a field of comic observation and reflection as the frontier Missouri immortalized by Samuel Clemens.
Aasif Mandvi, currently playing Ali Hakim in the Trevor Nunn revival of "Oklahoma," proves a charismatic gem as the title character, Ganesh Ramsumair, who drifts away from a teaching job in the city of Port of Spain and gradually finds his niche as the biggest fish in a small pond, combining massage therapy with literary aspiration in a rural community called Fuente Grove.
Discovering synergy before it had a name, Ganesh resists being discouraged by setbacks as both amateur author and healer. Persistence earns him esteem as a specialist in written platitudes and dubious hands-on therapy. One vocation reinforces the other until Ganesh jeopardizes his own contentment by branching out into political demagoguery.
His principal intimates while ascending from obscurity to celebrity, Trinidad-style, are an opportunistic father-in-law named Ramlogan (Om Puri in uproarious good form); a devoted spouse named Leela (the handsome and humorously incisive Ayesha Dharker); a dotty English exile named Stewart (James Fox mimicking the mellow decline and fall of empire); an admiring protege named Partap (Jimi Mistry); and a beloved, wise and affectionate aunt (the superlative Zohra Segal). There's also a champion heckler: Sakina Jaffrey as Suruj Mooma, a merchant's wife who has no use for Ganesh from his first day in the village.
With the exception of Mr. Fox, all these performers get to revel in the lilting and ungrammatical charms of the Trinidadian dialect, which seems to disregard pronouns in the accusative case. The patois rolls so comfortably off the palates of the actors that it becomes pure fun just to hear them repeatedly say "man."
Mr. Mandvi's Ganesh is a go-getter in the mold of Mordecai Richler's Duddy Kravitz although unlike Richard Dreyfuss, who memorably portrayed Kravitz at the start of his career, Mr. Mandvi has the luxury of an expansive time frame. It encompasses a range of inspirational literature that begins timidly with "101 Questions and Answers About the Hindu Religion" and crests with "What God Told Me."

***
TITLE: "The Mystic Masseur"
RATING: PG (Fleeting profanity and sexual allusions)
CREDITS: Directed by Ismail Merchant. Screenplay by Caryl Phillips, based on the novel by V.S. Naipaul.
RUNNING TIME: 117 minutes


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