Ismail Merchant is best known as the producer half of Merchant Ivory Productions, teaming with director James Ivory for enough movies to earn them a place in "The Guinness Book of World Records" as the longest-lasting team in independent film.
Merchant occasionally takes a turn in the director's chair as well, and his storytelling skills have grown remarkably. His new picture, "The Mystic Masseur," is his strongest yet and surely the most cannily timed, since it's based on a novel by V.S. Naipaul, who won the Nobel Prize for literature as the film was heading for completion.
The movie's theme could be stated by turning an old adage on its head: A little knowledge is a wonderful thing. That's how it seems to Ganesh, an Indian man living in Trinidad, where he teaches school and dreams of a better life as an author.
The catch is that he's never written a book and when he does, nobody wants to buy it. Taking up his late father's career as a masseur and healer, he finds his charisma growing. Book sales follow, and before long, he's a genuine writer.
Next stop: politics. Things don't work out well here, teaching him more than he wanted to know about the complexities of colonial power. But his spirit proves unquenchable.
Merchant tells Ganesh's story at a rollicking pace, filling the screen with colorful images and sprightly performances. He also carries on his longtime fascination with the importance of language in human experience.
"The Mystic Masseur" is one of the rare movies that make you think and laugh out loud, often at the very same time.
Rated PG; contains sexual material.