Sunday 8th June, 2003

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Cold-blooded collateral

Nothing unusual means everything usual.

That’s a line from a long-time short story, “The Night Watchman’s Occurrence Book” by VS Naipaul which the scriptwriter of The Mystic Masseur – the movie – has not yet put his hands on, to do the hatchet job on an artistic vision he’s done on Naipaul’s 1957 novel.

Take a glance at the Week in Review on the left. It has been what we are coming to understand to be a typical week in T&T.

Really, there’s nothing unusual in this week’s murders, still missing kidnapped children, robberies, assaults, etc. In fact, it’s all what people of this country are coming to accept as pretty usual, so one can pretty well understand Prime Minister Patrick Manning’s nonchalance and bland dismissal of those who read crisis in what’s going on around them.

That people are being gunned down in cold, cold blood – the latest like a rerun of an exciting western at MovieTowne – is becoming pretty usual. That children are the targets of kidnappers is becoming pretty usual. That with each incident the PM evokes what has become his pretty usual position as head of the National Security Council of “certain, unusual” information to which he is privy, is also pretty usual.

And that his National Security Minister and the Police Commissioner – with each high profile incident – start robber-talking in tones of the mythical Midnight Robber is (yawn…) oh so usual.

So, as a leading parliamentarian has been said to have said in a previous time of similar siege, by similar persons, “wake me up when it’s over.”

That is, if I could sleep.

As it is, already, the average citizen is rethinking the usual antidote for insomnia, which until Thursday would have been taking in one of the offerings of MovieTowne. Now, there’s that small matter one must consider: He/she might become collateral damage.

For Mr Manning’s average citizen, untouched and unaffected by the crime situation, who dares venture into this wild wild WestTowne, however, the cineplex is now showing The Mystic Masseur, which is promotionally pitched as “a time and a place for magic and miracles.”

The movie, like the novel, is set in Trinidad. Need I say more on how misleading then that promotional line is?

Nothing in the book, nor even the Caryl Phillips-scripted Merchant Ivory production remotely shows any place for magic and miracles, unless one considers an opportunistic, self-annointed masseur-cum-mystic-cum-political leader-cum-national icon ripping off people wanting to be ripped off in a struggling village “a place for magic and miracles.”

But then it might have been penned with the same blinkered vision that directed the scriptwriter to extrapolate on the Naipaul story to its detriment; the kind of deteriorating 2020 vision that inspires observations like Mr Manning’s.

Now it would have been closer to the truth if the promoters had said the movie is about a Caribbean backwater, where it is pretty usual for one to be an average citizen one day, a religious leader the next, a coup leader on the third, a murder and plunderer on the fourth, by the fifth a community leader, on the sixth metamorphosed into a politician, and by the seventh, who knows, a Prime Minister sitting back sagely, surveying the collateral damage.

That would have been truer to the vision of the book and the movie – although, wrapped around Phillips’ extrapolations, the movie almost misses the point.

In fact, it seems to have stumbled on it quite by accident…

What about the word “coldly” that a script writer, director, producer, make-up artist, actor do not understand?

Even Mills and Boon readers know it means absence of love; a closed heart, unreceptive, dismissive, aloof…

It is the last word in Naipaul’s novel A Mystic Masseur; the word that lingers most significantly.

Coldly, with all it’s implications, the novel suggests, is the tone in which Ganesh Ramsumair, pronounced the newest version of his name – G Ramsay Muir. That assumed name that negated his origin, that made him no different from his rival, Narayan, whom he had sent to the political graveyard, reflected the cold, superior character public adoration had made of him.

From the first page, the first image of Ganesh we’re presented with is, “Ganesh seemed the only cool thing in the village.” So the movie’s softening of his image, even having him even training a “successor,” is a travesty of the author’s vision.

Ganesh’s pronouncement of this Anglicised version of his name comes at the end of the long road in his evolution from failed teacher, failed writer, failed masseur, fake pundit, corrupt politician, MBE, hailed by all, revered both by the country folk and the city folk; a statesman in a place that had no model to know what statesmanship is; a demi god who had built his kingdom on adoration of the ignorant.

In a rare display of insight, the movie actually suggests “coldly” was also, perhaps, fulfillment of an autobiographical prophesy – what Naipaul himself had become in his own rise to fame; but then, its casting has also been good, though the deficient scripting left the actors unchallenged, the most inspiring acting coming from The Great Belcher.

But the positive dawns only after one recovers from scenes that jarr what simple research on the period would have corrected:

n Sparrow’s “Jean and Dinah” and Lord Pretender’s “Never Ever Worry” being blasted on the radio – anyone who is familiar with rural Trinidad would know no Indo-Trinidadian village as closed and remote as Fuente Grove would have been blasting calypso in the 1940s;

n an entertainment group with a lead female singer at the impoverished young couple’s wedding;

n villager, albeit middle-income ones, bedecked in three-piece suits while going about their daily routine;

n and how the Trini accent spoken by an American/Indian comes out Jamaican, so the Trini emphatic man, becomes the Jamaican marn; and the village “ah go” becomes I (pause) go (pause).

In its better moments, the movie hints at the deficiencies in how a society like this, built on pillars of fraudulence, deceit, corruption and short-sightedness throws up its leaders, and how easy it is for scum to rise to the top.

Anyone can become a masseur, a pundit, or pastor, and in a matter of time, a politician and leader of his people, not because of competence, but because its people are too dull-witted, or blindsided, to know their own power, or how those they warmly hold up as leaders, treat them so coldly.

©2003-2004 Trinidad Publishing Company Limited

Designed by: Randall Rajkumar-Maharaj · Updated daily by: Sheahan Farrell