Thursday 20 March 2008

The Mystic Masseur - A Film Criticism

Title: The Mystic Masseur
Year: 2001

Director: Ismail Merchant

Writer: V.S. Naipaul (novel)
Caryl Phillips (screenplay)
Studio: Merchant Ivory Productions

Film Stock: Color
Run Time: 117 min.

The film The Mystic Masseur from director Ismail Merchant presents a bit of a baffling story when examined from Irish Catholic eyes. However with that limitation in mind, I will attempt to address the question of the cult of Ganesh (pun intended). Was Ganesh, or G Ramsey Muir, a conman or a mystic and does the movement that rose up around him, or that he created, count as a cult? If it is a cult, in what ways?

Stark & Bainbridge in their article outline 3 models of cult formation. They are: 1) the Psychopathology Model, 2) the Entrepreneur Model and 3) the Subculture-Evolution Model. The Mystic Masseur, and the movement that develops around Ganesh, fits both models two and three. In the rest of the paper we will examine how specifically.

In the entrepreneurial model Bainbridge and Stark list ten chief ideals about the development or work of a cult in this style. They state: "1. Cults are business which provide a product for their customers and receive payment in return, 2. Cults are mainly in the business of selling novel compensators, or at least freshly packaged compensators that appear new, 3. Therefore, a supply of novel compensators must b
e manufactured, 4. Both the manufacture and sales are accomplished by entrepreneurs. …" Ganesh creates both a successful business and a successful cult out of writing his books and advising people.

One of the first examples of this from the film is his healing of Pratap of the dark clouds that are haunting him. In this screen shot we see Ganesh behind a curtain, his wife Leela directing the show in front of the curtain, Beharry shoved to the side, Pratap front and center, with his mother Mrs. Cooper and Auntie observing the healing take place. The setting is a mix of symbols and practices from across religious traditions. Candles, bells incense, yet a crucifix sitting on the table with 5 bowls of offering on the left by Beharry. In this scene we see the manufacture of ritual and practice that produces a miraculous healing. This is the beginning of the rise of the cult of Ganesh in the movie.

In the Subcultural-Evolution model, in this way the cult of Ganesh emerges in the Indian Hindu community in Trinidad through a number of factors, and like Stark & Bainbridge predict, it reaches a point of failure due to the exchanging of compensators. Ganesh becomes a leader within the Indian community on Trinidad; he first becomes a healer, and spiritual writer, and then through that popularity he becomes a member of parliament. However, after Ganesh moves from being the mystic masseur to being a representative of the government he quickly falls from grace with the people who were once his
closest followers. He cannot return to being the mystic masseur after the people have lost some of their faith in him. Therefore the cult diminishes until he visits oxford where he is now known only as a foreign dignitary, whom Pratap does not recognize by the name he is using now.

The film The Mystic Masseur sees the rise and fall of a cult leader within a subculture. Ganesh moves through many roles and titles or positions through the movie with an ease of a snake-oil salesman, who changes his pitch for each town or state he is visiting. The cult rises up around Ganesh and it also falls down around him during the progression of the film. As such, this is a religious film showing a Hindu personality cult localized to a specific place and subculture.


Bainbridge & Stark Cult Formation: Three Compatible Models 1979
IBID. P.288
IDIB p.291,292


Bainbridge, William S
& Stark, Rodney
Cult Formation: Three Compatible Models

(First Written for RS266 Religion in Popular Film Fall 2007.)

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