The Enigma of Filmmaking

David Tindall followed the making of The Mystic Masseur from the beginning

  • Director Ismail Merchant observes the musicians at play. Photograph by David Tindall
  • Actor Pip Torrens plays the Governor, Whitehall serves as Government House. Photograph by David Tindall
  • Actors Maureen Thompson and Michael Cherry arrive for dinner at the Governor's House. Photograph by David Tindall
  • A violinist prepares for his scene in the movie. Photograph by Albert Laveau
  • Group hug for members of the cast and crew. Photograph by Albert Laveau
  • On the banks of the Caroni River, the body of Ganesh's father is prepared for cremation. Photograph by Albert Laveau
  • Actors Aasif Mandvi (left) and James Fox. Photograph by David Tindall
  • The film crew with Ganesh's Vauxhall on location in Tucker Valley. Photograph by David Tindall
  • Ganesh addresses dockworkers on strike. Photograph by Albert Laveau
  • Exterior of Ramlogan's shop. Photograph by Albert Laveau
  • Ayesha Dharker plays Ganesh's wife Leela in Mystic Masseur. Photograph by Albert Laveau
  • Author V.S. Naipaul. Photograph by Jerry Bauer courtesy Picador

The making of VS Naipaul’s The Mystic Masseur

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 an English set designer. They were joined in the work by 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. Communicating 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.”

Extras and other locals on the set quickly realised that  precious scenes that can make or break a film require a marathon of patience and effort. Sixteen-hour days became par for the course, with few creature comforts, not even for the leading players. This was a really low-budget production, US$21/2million, which would barely cover the bill for meals on some of Merchant Ivory’s more lavish films. However, sometimes the purse-strings were pulled a little too tight.

Om Puri, star of East is East and City of Joy, who plays the greedy, scheming village storekeeper Ramlogan in this film, is prone to backache. After several days and nights of standing around in the bush he had to lie flat on an old board between takes. “There were only six chairs between 60 people,” he said. Finally, I introduced him to a real local masseuse, Molly Hardy, whose magic touch revitalised him, along with several of the aching crew members, on his day off. The actor James Fox, who flew 4,000 miles from London on a Saturday to play a spiritual recluse in a single scene at the old churchyard, found himself filming the next morning and flying back to England the following Tuesday. The “purse” wasn’t about to subsidise any leisurely break on a palm-fringed beach.

But that’s show business! Ismail Merchant is usually the producer in this 40-year film partnership with James Ivory, and though The Mystic Masseur is his fifth movie as director, he wasn’t about to loosen his fiendishly tight grip on the budget. But however economically stringent Merchant Ivory productions may be, this cost-consciousness has not been reflected in their films. The Mystic Masseur is no exception.

Ernie Vincze told me: “It has the wonderful scale and quality of a big production. The post-production work on it is brilliant.” The virtuoso Trinidadian pannist, Liam Teague, whose playing features on the soundtrack, says the film captures some stunning images of the country. For Teague, however, the really invaluable experience was working with the famous music composer Richard Robbins in New York, where the film was edited and dubbed. “The music is an uplifting experience. The sound of pan can be heard in a different way to the clichéd island model, and I think it will encourage people to consider our music more seriously,” said Teague.

All this will be good news to Trinidadian industrialist Lawrence Duprey, who invested half-a-million US dollars in the picture and is hoping for a box office success. The main hope,  though, is that this movie will lead to greater things: that The Mystic Masseur will be the movie to generate the beginnings of a viable film industry in Trinidad and Tobago. It’s been a dream among aspiring local producers for three decades — since Robinson Crusoe first met Man Friday on celluloid in Tobago. And there are encouraging signs that film-makers are seriously interested in viewing the twin-island state as a rich source of material, rather than simply an exotic location with steelband, calypso and carnival.

Just as importantly, as Duprey told a press conference to welcome Merchant Ivory to Trinidad: “If the will is there to get a local film industry off the ground, plus the concentrated effort, then it’s going to happen. There is no good reason why the infrastructure to support serious film business should not evolve here.”

Trinidadian producer Tony Maharaj has his feature film Shells in the marketplace at present, and there is the hope that foreign producers will follow Merchant Ivory. There is also the possibility that Merchant Ivory will shoot another of Naipaul’s novels in Trinidad, either A House For Mr Biswas or Miguel Street.

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 Trinidadians 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 McDonalds, 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.

Even before a foot of film rolled on The Mystic Masseur, the experience of the audition was a testing time for those who’d come to capture one of the ten or so small speaking parts. The scene was The Little Carib Theatre, Port of Spain. The small, hot foyer was full of hopefuls, as well as those who had just come to be seen, and others who intended to give it their best shot when, and if, the call came. Inside the theatre the stage lights shone on three chairs — one for Ismail Merchant, serene in white cotton, another for Albert Laveau, artistic director of the Trinidad Theatre Workshop, who plays a disciplinarian headmaster in the film and who was helping with the script, and a third in the middle for those seeking the moment of glory. Very few of the young people had read Naipaul’s novel, and so came cold to the script. But that did not deter anyone from trying their luck. There was even a very short guy who was escorted in from the foyer under the arm of an usher. In a twinkling he leapt onto the chair beside the director.

“Good evening. Nice to see you. And what part have you come for?” asked Mr Merchant.

“Ah does do everything,” said the man, picking up the script to look at a few lines that were underlined. At the same time he reeled off a potted life history of all the roles he’d played on and off stages all over Trinidad, including calypsonian, and then, without further ado, he began reading from the script. He clearly thought the part lacked something, because in less than a minute he was off his chair and scampering up and down the stage, acting his socks off in a shower of passion, his script a long way off anything written by Naipaul or Caryl Phillips. But it was funny. Mr Merchant looked on like a kindly uncle.

“Thank you so much for coming to see us,” he said when the man was through. “We have your name and address and will contact you.” The gentle soul gave a little bow and skipped happily away into the dark void.

You should know that Mr Merchant, who exudes smiling charm, is proud of his now internationally-known powers of persuasion. He could probably sell 40 cans of beans to a guy who really wanted a second-hand motorbike. In the film industry his trick is to get people to do as much as they can for as little as possible. And on this film the producer was his young nephew, the equally charming and ebullient Nayeem Hafizka. Nayeem is his uncle’s clone, indefatigable in the wheeling and dealing it takes sometimes to stay within a no-frills budget. In next to no time he had Prime Minister Panday’s cell number. Elsewhere, discounts were sought on everything from meals in restaurants to air fares. The charm worked for the most part.

But it did not work one frenetic day in downtown Port of Spain where Mr Merchant and his nephew had cordoned off a street for a scene in an old printing works with a hand press —  the sort of place used in the novel by Ganesh when he was an aspiring writer of books. Suddenly, as the crew was preparing for the first take, there was a commotion in the street. A family sitting outside their home refused to budge until they had been properly compensated. “We want TT$1,500 (about US$250), and put it in writing,” they said. Nayeem and his uncle turned on the smiles. No go. The family claimed that no-one had warned them that the street would be closed for two days. The police were called. Still no go.

Sensing an opportunity, a barber and a barkeeper joined in. Both complained they would lose so much trade they would be unable to pay the rent at the end of the week. The family, meanwhile, now squatting on the pavement, was opening up to the idea of negotiation. If three of them were taken on as extras, they said, they might reconsider. For the first time that day Nayeem and Ismail had to capitulate. Finally filming got underway. It was a scene that could easily have come straight out of one of Naipaul’s stories.

In that sense as well the film remains true to the way Naipaul wrote The Mystic Masseur. Those who’ve had a preview of the movie praise its “magical quality and humour”, and say cinemagoers will love it. Of course, there’s no denying that a two-hour feature film from a company with Merchant Ivory’s international status can do a lot to influence Trinidad’s fledgling film industry. Fingers remain crossed.