V S Naipaul: the enigma of film-making Arts On Sunday
Stabroek News
December 9, 2001

Just over a year ago, film-makers Merchant Ivory (Ismail Merchant and James Ivory) decided to begin filming V S Naipaul's satirical novel, The Mystic Masseur in its natural setting, Trinidad. The Merchant Ivory team is already well experienced in movie adaptations of prominent works of fiction including novels by Jane Austen.

A few Caribbean novels have already been filmed, including Ian McDonald's The Humming Bird Tree by the BBC, shown in 1993; the famous Lunatic by Winkler, another product of the Jamaican film industry; Jean Rhys' Wide Sargasso Sea, also filmed in Jamaica (1997) by Lime Tree, directed by Michael Dougan; a shorter version of the same novel by Michael Gilkes, shot in Dominica with a partly Guyanese cast; and Allfrey's The Orchid House by the BBC.

Caryl Phillips, who wrote the screenplay for The Mystic Masseur is one of the current generation of successful West Indian writers who emerged in Britain. This book by Naipaul is one of his earliest (1957), one of a group of humourous but sharply critical satirical studies of West Indian society for which the author has been severly chastised.

It is the story of Ganesh Ramsumair, a rural Trinidad Indian with talent but no direction in a limited, unsupportive colonial society. He drifts through a brief stint as a primary school teacher, a successful career as a mystic healer and, inevitably, as a rudderless politician and mimic of English culture. For this kind of book, Naipaul has been lambasted for a cynical negative rejection of West Indian society. This castigation has gained renewed vigour since last month when the Trinidadian author was announced as winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize.

But the filming began well before this. We reprint an excerpt from Caribbean Beat, Nov-Dec 2001 by David Tyndall about the shooting on location in North-Western Trinidad.

(Al Creighton)

Though it had taken years to persuade V.S. Naipaul to permit the film adaptation of his novel The Mystic Masseur, Ismail Merchant brought his team from London, New York and Bombay with precious little preparation on the ground in Trinidad before shooting started. With a general election about to happen it wasn't an ideal time to start filming. But against local advice, Ismail Merchant decided to shoot his movie, come what may, between January and the start of Carnival at the end of February 2001.

He could not have accomplished this feat without the generosity and help of many locals who wanted the picture to be a success. Certainly, those hired to help set designers find all the props for a film set in the 1940s and 50s were exhausted after weeks of searching all over the country.

As if by magic, all the props materialised in the nick of time. These included a 1937 Vauxhall, in pristine condition, for the film's hero, Ganesh, to roll around in, as well as a 1952 gold Rolls Bentley for the smart colonial dinner scene at Government House (the Prime Minister was persuaded to lend his recently refurbished office, Whitehall, one of the Magnificent Seven buildings overlooking the Savannah in Port of Spain). Then there were ancient bicycles hired from even older men who'd been wobbling around the cane fields on them since the 1940s. There was even a collection of colonial currency discovered in the home of a Trinidadian numismatist.

Not since the Americans moved out of Chaguaramas at the end of the Second World War had there been such a sudden and frantic rush of activity in Trinidad's north-west peninsula. Tucker Valley, at the heart of the peninsula, and its 14,000 acres of national parkland, became the fictitious village of Fourways. Its creation, involving the building of two small houses and a village store, took three weeks. An old wooden house in southern Trinidad was taken apart and re-assembled by a local construction team, working under the supervision of two smiling characters from Bombay who didn't speak a word of English, Kisher and Dinesh, carpenters-cum-painters, part of Ismail Merchant's extensive labour force back in Bollywood, where over 500 movies a year are churned out. Communication mostly by sign language, it was they who set the pace: short lunch breaks and no siestas. Plank by plank, it all came together, brass scales and all.

The village was to provide some of the most magical moments in the film, especially the night wedding of the star, Ganesh, played by Aasif Mandvi from New York, and his bride, Leela (Ayesha Dharker, who starred in City of Joy). The cameraman, Ernie Vincze, Head of Cinematography at the National Film School in England, remarked, "The wedding is full of such beautiful emotions it carries itself virtually without dialogue"...

Caryl Phillips, born in St Kitts, brought up in Leeds, wrote the script for The Mystic Masseur. Speaking by phone from his home in New York, he said, "I'm happy that what they've done is a reasonably good transposition of my script, though there are a couple of scenes I would have done differently."

Phillips is referring particularly to the amusing dinner scene at Government House: a typical colonial black-tie affair set during the 1950s (a decade from the country's independence in 1962), in which a few Afro and Indo-Trinidadians guests are invited up from the country to dine with old European families, used to the formalities of such grand occasions.

Over the dinner table, spotless silverware gleaming from snow-white linen, there is a lot of fun, though it's the scriptwriter's view that one or two of the black Trinidadian are portrayed as caricatures, while the behaviour of the Indian characters was more understated. For instance, well-known Trinidadian actor Michael Cherrie (playing one of the invited guests in the scene) stands out in a bright yellow suit, while his companion in billowing voile is straight off the top of a Christmas tree.

Phillips apparently encouraged the film editor to take out some of the more buffoonish stuff. All the same, he says: "You have to see race and class in the context of that period, and the film remains true to the difficulties of that time."

For certain, everyone who took part in this agonisingly long weekend of retakes at Government House was more or less the same colour by the end of it: ashen grey, with fatigue. They had arrived in all their regalia on the Saturday evening for what they thought would be a few hours. But someone had forgotten to hire a string quartet, the lighting wasn't quite right, the choreography wasn't coming together... at 2 a.m. on Sunday, filming was abandoned and everyone was told to come back in the afternoon. James Ivory, who was over from New York for a spell to escape the winter cold, remarked: "You don't appreciate the degradation of being an extra until you've been through it."

How right he was. The long suffering extras were being paid just TT$100(about US$17) for their pains. Fortunately, the majority were not in it for the money. But the novelty and grandeur of the occasion had long worn off by the time filming ended. Further complications meant that the scene was finally wrapped at 5 a.m. on Monday morning, only an hour before the Prime Minister wanted his office back. So, at dawn, aching backs and feet moved slowly into the thin light of a new day, the memory of being an extra in a movie printed in their minds forever.

For the Indians Ismail Merchant brought from Bombay to help create his sets and attend to a hundred and one other manual duties, there was precious little relief. Here they were in a foreign country (unsure, even, exactly where it was), with little time and perhaps insufficient money to enjoy it, and understanding nothing of the language. Yet they slogged diligently through all their busy days with a smile. Everyone was touched by the patience and good humour, even through the most stressful times, of Abdul the tailor, who lives with his family in Bombay's "Cardboard City". During the filming of the movie he lived in a room at the top of a house rented as an administrative base. There he worked on no less than 1,200 items of clothing for the film. Occasionally he would walk down the road to the local McDonald's, where he kept the toys from the kids' meal for his children. Abdul the tailor, I think, was one of the silent heroes behind the film.