Ismail Merchant’s “The Mystic Masseur” is a cinematic postcard. At first glance, it’s beautiful to look at. But once you get to the meat of message, there’s not much to be said beyond well wishes and short, choppy sentences describing the scenery. Occasionally funny, sometimes inspiring, often boring, the magic is minimal in “The Mystic Masseur.”
Based on the novel by Nobel Prize winner V.S. Naipaul, the story follows Ganesh (Aasif Mandvi), a teacher turned writer turned guru turned politician in Trinidad during the middle part of the twentieth century. With such a lofty career, you’d think we’d get to know Ganesh very well. Not so. Instead his personality is glossed over to focus on his more mundane rise and fall.
After losing his job as a teacher in Port of Spain, Ganesh returns to his rural Trinidadian home to find that his father has died. Already infatuated with the concept of learning, Ganesh decides to stay in the village and begin writing a book of his own. For anyone who’s given the writer’s life a try, it’s not so much a lonely one, but rather a poor one. In order to make some money, Ganesh takes up his father’s trade as a masseur. With that people start thinking he has great powers and Ganesh becomes something of a small-town celebrity, gaining more and more power with every day.
It’s not just Ganesh who’s a caricature. Many of “The Mystic Masseur’s” supporting inhabitants are portrayed as though they are little more than breathing cartoon characters. With exaggerated facial expressions, bright clothing and nothing talk reminiscent of the downhill days of “Seinfeld,” it’s tough to take any of them seriously. This shtick makes for some funny moments, especially the banter between Ganesh and his father-in-law Ramlogan (Om Puri). It also leads to many stale periods that make the film feel a lot longer than the two hours it actually is.
Conflict is often glossed over with explanations given by a voiceover narration. Even though Ganesh struggles to become a writer, a mystic and finally a politician, his oppositions are summed up in a few lines of omniscient dialogue. Then it’s back to his quirky adventures and the eccentric people who surround him.
The tropical Trinidadian locales are lush and a sight to be seen. But then again, this is a Merchant Ivory production. How could one expect anything less? Director Merchant goes to great lengths in his set details, creating a rich backdrop for such a subdued story. More than once I found myself tuned out of the story, focusing instead on the gently blowing palms and intricate home decorations. Merchant is a master of spectacle, much the same as Jerry Bruckheimer, just for a different audience. To me, the two are very much alike. Their films are gorgeous to look at, but getting to and through the story is the struggle. Whereas at least Bruckheimer gives you an adrenaline injection, Merchant’s films are a cup of mint tea before bed.
Thankfully, “The Mystic Masseur” never takes itself too seriously. There are some laughs to be had. Just don’t watch it with great expectations because they’re unlikely to be met. My biggest reaction follows the same lines as a postcard: It’s great to hear from a friend, even if they don’t have much to say. Then jealousy hits and you’re dreaming about going to their tropical vacation spot.