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October 11, 2001
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Naipaul deserves Nobel: Merchant

Nirshan Perera in San Francisco

Cheers broke out in the Manhattan office of Merchant Ivory Productions when Sir V S Naipaul won this year's Nobel Prize for literature.

"We were absolutely ecstatic," gushed Ismail Merchant. For the prolific film guru, the timing of Naipaul's Nobel win -- and the tardiness some would say -- couldn't be better.

MIP is poised to release its much anticipated film of Naipaul's early novel, The Mystic Masseur. It is the first and only movie okayed by the famously cantankerous author.

As the story goes, Merchant lobbied Naipaul's agent for six years to get the rights. Then he went straight to the source.

It wasn't long before a crisply worded fax rolled in out of the blue: "Please don't come to see me. I know your powers of persuasion are legendary -- and by the way, I'm happy to let you have the rights."

On Thursday, the first thing Merchant did was send a congratulatory fax of his own.

"This award is very well-deserved," he told rediff.com. "It is a tremendous honour to everyone concerned."

The marketing genius behind such hits as the Remains of the Day and Howard's End was quick to see the potential opportunities for MIP in light of the Nobel win.

"The prize will obviously renew the international focus on Naipaul," Merchant said. "We are, of course, the first ones to make a film of one of his great novels. And the award will obviously benefit everyone connected to Naipaul and his work."

Shot on location last fall in the new laureate's native Trinidad, The Mystic Masseur follows the satiric rise of country bumpkin Ganesh Ramsumair, from a humbug writer to a revered mystic to a jaded politico.

The film stars Aasif Mandvi, of Sakhina's Restaurant fame. Other stars include Om Puri, Ayesha Dharker, Jimi Mistry, Zohra Sehgal and Sanjay Bhaskar.

Testing the waters at a scattering of films festivals, The Mystic Masseur had garnered good reviews.

It would be shown in the Bay Area at the Mill Valley Film Festival from October 11-14, and on November 14 at the Calcutta Film Festival. The movie was also slated for viewing at the Santa Fe and London Film festivals over the next few months.

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