This Throwback Thursday, we’re looking back at Ismail Merchant’s 2001 film “The Mystic Masseur.”
Based on the 1957 debut novel by author V.S. Naipaul, the film tells the tale of a struggling Indo-Trinidadian writer who launches an unexpected political career after claiming he had the power to cure illnesses through his work as the mystic masseur of the book’s title.
Naipaul, who died on August 11, based his main character in part on his own father’s life and in part on his own. As he once told an interviewer, his father struggled with “getting the wish to be a writer and not having anyone interested.”
The film version of “The Mystic Masseur” stands out as being only one of a handful of movies directed by the Bombay-born Ismail Merchant, who died in 2005. Merchant had spent most of his time working on Merchant Ivory productions as a producer, but stepped behind the camera for the adaptation of the novel.
A young Aasif Mandvi was cast in the titular role of Ganesh Ramseyor. In several passages in his 2014 memoir “No Man’s Land,” Mandvi would detail the ups and downs of working on the film, revealing that he even lived with Merchant in the producer’s London apartment while preparing for the role and getting fitted for costumes. Things became much more hectic (and strained) between the two once they flew to Trinidad to begin filming.
“V.S. Naipaul, a towering writer and deeply flawed man, is dead.” Here are @TVSanjeev and I playing a Trini country couple in his #MysticMasseur, starring my pal @aasif.https://t.co/bOa5t7vIOQ pic.twitter.com/tCYQw1Hgwt
— Sakina Jaffrey (@sakinajaffrey) August 12, 2018
Mandvi, who was quite nervous about working with award winning producers and performers that including Om Puri, Jimi Mistry and Sakina Jaffrey, wrote about often being frustrated at Merchant’s directing style and his lack of any real guidance. Scenes that weren’t in the script were filmed on the fly, Mandvi recalled, often for no other reason than Merchant liked the way a particular house or street would look on film.
“The first few days I followed Ismail around with questions that he never answered or he thought were pointless or he answered with a perfunctory, ‘Sure, let’s try it,” Mandvi wrote. “He didn’t have time to hold my hand, he didn’t have time to talk to me about my character and the truth of a scene or the legitimacy of the dialogue because, well… because he didn’t know how to. He was in his own process.”
Perhaps it is not surprising then that the film received mixed reviews and was considered, in the words of the New York Times, a “semiflop” at the box office. Despite all of that, the film is still worth a watch today for its strong performances and the costumes and settings fans of Merchant Ivory films have always come to expect.
But the most important aspect of “The Mystic Masseur” is its portrayal of Trinidad in its first few years after the end of British rule. Given that the screenplay was based on a Naipaul novel, it is unsurprising that the pain and brutality of colonialism were clearly portrayed.
“On the issue of British colonial rule… the movie is anything but detached,” Stephen Holden wrote in his New York Times review in 2002. “Underneath its cool-headed compassion, ”The Mystic Masseur” has a hard-headed understanding of the brute realities of politics and power and is firmly on the side of the oppressed.”