Not Into the Mystic


The boy handed in libellous reviews of the films.

‘We can’t print this, man,’ Ganesh said.

‘Is all right for you to talk. You just go around getting advertisements. Me, I had to spend six whole hours watching those two pictures.’ —V.S. Naipaul, The Mystic Masseur

Child of Gandhi and Coca-Cola, Ganesh Ramsumair parlays ambition and a dubious B.A. into an improbable Trinidadian career: faith healer and author, newspaper publisher and politician. At the end of The Mystic Masseur, V.S. Naipaul’s first novel, Ganesh undergoes the ultimate translation, landing in England as “G. Ramsay Muir.” Published in 1957, when Naipaul was not yet 25, Ganesh’s tale now seems an uncanny parody of the author’s nascent career, pathetic shadow to the illustrious real life: Ganesh’s pragmatic oeuvre and token M.B.E. for Naipaul’s Nobel-winning work and knighthood. Still, there is ample affection and wit in his portrait of the community he left behind, the Lancashire-sized world of Indians in Trinidad.

Ismail Merchant’s screen adaptation retains much of the novel’s incident, but fumbles both the humor and moral ambivalence. The mercantile Masseur, from a baggy script by Caryl Phillips, plods in a way the slim novel never does. (The film only feels as long as Gandhi.) In the crucial role of Ganesh, Aasif Mandvi makes an impression during the pundit’s salad days, but his confidence wanes as the story deteriorates. Ayesha Dharker, as Ganesh’s wife, and Om Puri, as his father-in-law, fare better, but it’s unclear how much dramatic weight they’re supposed to bear. Other secondary characters are similarly rudderless—one of Naipaul’s more farcical creations, the Great Belcher, is reduced to a dear old auntie who occasionally generates a mild breathy noise.

Framing the tale is Partap (Jimi Mistry), a politicized young man who was healed as a boy by Ganesh. When the knowledge-loving author learns that his patient (and protégé) is Oxford bound, he tells him, “You go there to come back.” As the book’s narrator is unnamed and largely uninvolved, this elaboration promises a more explicit consideration of the ties between England and her far-flung subject. But Merchant has nothing provocative to say about the end of empire, a fact that becomes painfully evident during a dinner at the colonial governor’s mansion. The mise-en-scène is out of a Jackie Chan period piece, where actors playing British dignitaries seem to have shown up on a lark. Indeed, The Mystic Masseur might have been vastly improved if staged as a martial arts film and given a hard-boiled title from Naipaul’s In a Free State: Tell Me Who to Kill.

And maybe The Scorpion King (Universal, in general release), starring WWF icon The Rock, would have worked better as a pay-per-view steel-cage bout. In The Mummy Returns, the People’s Champion mostly grunted, but when he spoke it was, loopily, in ancient Egyptian; for this quickie prequel, he’s an Akkadian assassin prone to an uncharacteristic Ahnoldian terseness. He seems to have taken to heart his advice for whiny grapplers upset by pro-wrestling’s scripted plotlines: “Know your role—and shut your mouth!”