A considerable leap forward from vet producer Ismail Merchant’s prior directorial exercises, “The Mystic Masseur” adapts an early V.S. Naipaul — who won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week — story to diverting and handsome, if uneven, results. While the more delicate tonal shifts required here are too often bluntly (mis-)handled, pic nonetheless proves a far more agreeable match for Merchant than the turgid likes of “In Custody” or “Cotton Mary.” Lushly mounted with a confectionery color palette, “Masseur” recalls foreign arthouse hits of the pre-1960s era as it drapes a fablelike story in full-dress cultural exotica. While some viewers may detect a less pleasing undertow of retro-patronization — or wish Merchant were better attuned to the tale’s subtle ironies — they’ll likely be out-voted by older-skewing auds happy to enjoy feature’s undeniable surface virtues. Prospects for limited theatrical sales in most territories look upbeat.
Rather banal, o-thou-green-and-pleasant-land framing device first introduces Trinidadian Ganesh (Aasif Mandvi) as a grand old man visiting erstwhile protege Partap (Jimi Mistry) as the latter completes studies at Oxford in 1954. The retired elder statesman expresses wonderment at the fabled institution’s libraries then muses about his own checkered academic career. Feature-length flashback duly ensues.
A love of the written word had led him into teaching, but his methods soon clashed with a Trinidad school’s headmaster. Unbowed, Ganesh vowed to embark on a literary career on his own, somehow. Though “Masseur” soon works past its initial air of forced joviality, subsequent charm can’t quite cover a significant hole: Novelist Caryl Phillips’ adept screenplay only hints at the depth of protag’s intellectual curiosity, and Merchant’s rather broadly humorous approach suggests — intentionally or otherwise — there’s comedy inherent in “simple folk” hazarding such pursuits.
Hero travels back to native village of Indian-heritage Trinidadians for his father’s funeral. Here he’s promptly “trapped” into wedlock by scheming shop owner Ramlogan (Om Puri), to his eligible offspring Leela (Ayesha Dharker). The newlyweds retreat to an idyllic, yea more remote home, where Ganesh will begin his climb to publishing fame. That road proves arduous, however, and when an impoverished household budget soon exhausts Leela’s patience, she storms back to chez papa.
Once Ganesh has completed Tome #1 (“101 Questions and Answers on the Hindu Religion”), she returns. But the couple’s fortunes only rally in earnest when they deploy a little showmanship and much traditional Indian dress-finery to promote Ganesh as a “Mystic Masseur” whose laying on of hands can heal the troubled or ill. Suddenly awed locals travel from far afield, their sheer desire to believe rendering this “guru’s” powers a folk phenom. Meanwhile, his books — cranked out at hectic pace — fly off shelves.
Fame inevitably leads Ganesh into politics, where his idealism is fast subsumed — if not entirely vanquished — by the ebbing Brit governorship’s biz-as-usual attitude toward social change. At last, he retreats contentedly to private life.
“Masseur” loses some steam in these later sequences. Merchant is least effective when staging key larger-scale sequences that should convey multiple levels of meaning, and a state dinner party at the capital (repping pic’s first real acknowledgment of Trinidad’s complex social stratas) etches class-ethnic snobbery in crude satirical strokes. Though lead thesp Mandvi does his best to lend central character dignity throughout, the direction views Ganesh with an uneasy mixture of condescension, surprise and sentimentality, never connecting the dots to create a fully dimensionalized hero.
Subsidiary figures are much more simply drawn, for better and worse. While the beauteous Dharker, Zohra Segal (as a wise old Auntie) and others make agreeable impressions, Merchant lets veteran Om Puri go way over the top. Over the moon perhaps best describes James Fox, whose glorified cameo as a daft English expat seeking Far Eastern enlightenment comes off as more disheveled than funny.
A curious design lapse is the decision to effectively age only Mandavi — no one else gets so much as a make-up wrinkle.
Despite all frustrating aspects, on the whole “The Mystic Masseur” succeeds as light entertainment — even if at the cost of the material’s greater potential. Musical score by Richard Robbins and Zakir Hussain reps a lush if sometimes awkward (especially during the lugubrious Oxford scenes) melange of Western-orchestral, traditional Indian and sensuous Trinidadian sounds.
Best of all are the vibrant visual components, with eye-filling contribs from costumer Michael O’Connor, production designer Lucy Richardson, lenser Ernie Vincze, and the verdant tropical locations themselves.