This adaptation of V. S. Naipaul’s first novel, with a screenplay by Caryl Phillips and direction by Ismail Merchant, is the lightly comic tale of Ganesh Ransumair (Aasif Mandvi) and his rise from poverty to political office. Set mostly in a small Indian community in Trinidad in the ’40s and ’50s, it’s full of colorful characters and quaint but not cutesy incidents as it follows its hero’s accidental rise to prominence. Accidental because Ransumair sets out to be a famous writer and ends up being something else altogether.
For Ransumair, books are nearly sacred items and he longs to be among those who create them. His auto-didactical approach to learning how to write consists of spending hours copying passages from other people’s books, not to incorporate them into his own work but rather to get a feel for the flow and rhythm of published writing. It’s a very literal version of what most developing writers do, which is to mimic, consciously or intuitively, those writers they admire, at least those within reach.
Unfortunately his ambition is greater than his talent and when Ransumair finally produces his debut book, it’s an unpromising pamphlet called 101 Questions and Answers on the Hindu Religion. Realizing that he’s not going to make his fortune as an author, Ransumair decides to follow in his late father’s footsteps as a masseur, which in this context means more than just kneading the calves of the overworked. It also includes a type of faith healing, complete with elaborate garb and pseudo-mystic double-talk. Finally he’s found his forte and he soon becomes a popular local shaman, abetting his practice by publishing more pamphlets, which have now taken on a decidedly pop-metaphysical bent.
Although Ransumair develops from a naive and aspiring writer-scholar to a rather pompous fraud, he remains a likable character because there’s no malice in his deceptions, only the innocent desire to make a mark. The first two-thirds of the film, with Ransumair contending with an impatient wife and a rascally father-in-law, maintain a low key and unpatronizingly amused tone, but once he gets involved in politics, the film strains for a significance it doesn’t achieve. Ransumair is an engaging character, but the wider implications of his progress are beyond the film’s reach.
Opens Friday exclusively at the Main Art Theatre (118 N. Main, Royal Oak). Call 248-542-0180.
Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.