We gave it a C-
Ismail merchant has produced nearly 40 films, including such Oscar bait as ”Howards End” and ”A Room With a View,” but his fourth turn behind the camera shows why he usually leaves the directing to partner James Ivory. Based on V.S. Naipaul’s 1957 debut novel, The Mystic Masseur follows a pompous but honest young backcountry intellectual named Ganesh (Assif Mandvi) in the Indian expatriate society of Trinidad as he rises from wannabe writer to local faith healer to nascent political force before falling prey to his own ambitions. The novel is a sharp, Dickensian comedy; the film is just plain dull.
Mandvi delivers a charismatic performance — and Indian film great Om Puri is a hoot as his mendacious father-in-law — but what are we to make of Ganesh? Is he a charlatan or a hero? A rustic boob or a wise leader? A dupe for the British colonials or a force for independence? Even if he is all those things, it’s the director’s job to build a context in which an audience can appreciate such ambiguities. Merchant hasn’t directed this movie so much as produced it — like sausage.