"The Mystic Masseur" is perfectly in keeping with such past Ismail Merchant/ James Ivory period pieces as "Howard's End" and "The Remains of the Day." Once again, we have a nicely acted study of social mores that is rich in texture and sumptuous scenery, but offers little plot to sustain our interest.
Merchant takes the director's chair usually occupied by his partner for this ultra-light comedy, adapted from Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul's novel. The story centers on a determined young writer from a community of Indian exiles living in Trinidad in the 1950s. Ganesh (Aasif Mandvi), educated in the island's English schools, tries his hand at teaching but finds it to be less art and more "survival technique," so he resigns to become a writer. Unable to afford the habit, though, he is pressured into marrying Leela (Ayesha Dharker) by her greedy merchant father, Ram Logan (Om Puri), who considers Ganesh a talented meal ticket for his daughter and himself. Encouraged by Ram Logan, Ganesh takes up his late father's trade as a masseur. Business is lousy until he begins promoting himself as something of a faith healer and seer. Ganesh becomes widely known as "The Pundit," allowing him to write (and sell) a plethora of self-promoting, self-help books about spirituality. Among the titles: "What God Told Me," with a cover shot of the author holding a hushing finger to his lips. (Yes, it's a very light comedy.)
Ganesh's works may not be the "literature" he hoped to pen, but his fame propels him into a political career, getting him elected to Trinidad's legislative council. That success is soon followed by his appointment as a Member of the British Empire and a trip to Oxford to gaze, wide-eyed, upon what seems to him to be all the books of the world.
In condensing Naipaul's sprawling novel, Merchant and screenwriter Caryl Phillips give Ganesh no significant obstacles to overcome. He must only suffer some whining from Leela, for whom his writing leaves little time. His clever manipulation of his fellow Indians assures his meteoric rise. The lack of dramatic tension en route to success makes Ganesh's tale about as compelling as listening to an immodest co-worker recite an embellished résumé of endeavors.
Fortunately, the cast makes the experience bearable. Mandvi is likeably ebullient as Ganesh. Puri is reprehensibly funny as his father-in-law. And, though given little to do except smile or frown, Dharker is a magnetic presence as Leela. Had her role in Ganesh's rise been given teeth, theirs might have been a more incisive story.
As is, the film offers little intrigue and no climax. One of Ganesh's books states, "A man is only as big as his ambition." If only the same could be said for this film.