The Mystic Masseur (review)

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I haven’t read V.S. Naipaul’s novel, but I’m shocked to learn that it clocks in at a slim 224 pages — this film adaptation has the feel of a huge, sprawling novel too greatly condensed. Director Ismail Merchant — one half of Merchant-Ivory — and screenwriter Caryl Phillips cram the tale of Ganesh (Aasif Mandvi) into 117 minutes, too little for the story of a man who was, in sequence, a teacher, a writer, a masseuse, a politician, and a spiritual guru. His rise and fall and rise and fall in the postwar Indian community of Trinidad, and his ensuing fight for the freedom and dignity of his people, demands a more leisurely pace — Merchant and Phillips manage to leave us feeling like they left all the really interesting parts out. Potentially fascinating characters — like James Fox’s Mr. Stewart, kinda the village idiot-cum-local mystic — are introduced and dropped almost immediately, reappearing again without warning when thematically required. Ganesh has hardly met lovely Leela (Ayesha Dharker) before he’s marrying her, and his ongoing battle of wills with his father-in-law (Om Puri) barely gets revving before it’s cast aside. There’s a certain charm to it, and Mandvi is terrific, but a wild, Braveheart sweep was in order, not the contained drawing-room drama we’re offered.

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