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‘City of Joy’

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 17, 1992


Roland Joffe
Patrick Swayze;
Pauline Collins;
Om Puri;
Art Malik
Children under 13 should be accompanied by a parent

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Two years of yuppie guilt movies at our backs, and now Roland Joffe tells us what we ought to be doing with our lives in the simplistic "City of Joy." A gruelingly moralistic drama from the director of "The Mission," the film concerns the spiritual reclamation of a jaded young American surgeon who finds himself in the slums of Calcutta. Would you believe Patrick Swayze as Father Teresa?

Swayze, all in white and sweat-soaked amid the lepers, takes some getting used to, but he doesn't embarrass himself as Max Lowe. A weeny Westerner who abandons his practice when he loses a young patient on the operation table, Lowe is seeking deeper meaning in India. He has about given up the quest -- "I've been opening the doors and windows of my soul, and I haven't seen a damn thing yet" -- when he is saved from robbers by Hasari (Om Puri). A peasant who has been driven from his village farm by drought and famine, the homeless, unemployed family man has problems of his own, but he takes the badly beaten Lowe to a nearby clinic for help.

The City of Joy Self-Help School and Dispensary, a crowded hospice run by a spunky Irish Samaritan, June (Pauline Collins), is poorly equipped and in need of a good doctor when Lowe arrives like an answer to a prayer. Though it is clearly his destiny, Lowe at first ignores June's attempts to lure him back into medicine and out of his funk. But finally he can no longer ignore the enormous pain and suffering of the impoverished outcasts in the ironically named neighborhood. And before you can say "Who's sari now?" he's up to his elbows in leprosy sores and blood.

Meanwhile Hasari takes a job as a rickshaw puller, working brutal shifts in the hot, traffic-clogged filth of Calcutta. He is determined to provide the basics for his family and a dowry for his marriageable daughter. The character, movingly played by the veteran actor Puri, is the heart and soul of the movie as this somehow dignified human horse. Swayze, basically a flip and pretty action hero, always seems like an intruder in what was originally Hasari's story anyway.

One of 50 or more tales in Dominique Lapierre's novel "The City of Joy," the rickshaw puller's story became the focus of the adaptation by Mark Medoff, who has basically written an epic buddy movie. It's not about salt and pepper, but of salt and curry. It's "Rocky Meets Gandhi: The white capitalist gains spiritual enlightenment; the man born to caste, the will to fight back." Following the example set by Lowe, Hasari leads a rebellion against a local bully who controls the rickshaw trade in one of those teeming scenes that Joffe directs so well.

"City of Joy," an impressively well-made film, is at its best when Joffe pulls back from the story to capture the squalid pageantry of Calcutta itself: its foul air, its fetid water, its contagious hovels. Still we can't shake the feeling that we are looking at it all through the eyes of a holier-than-thou sahib with a hot line to the maharishi. In the end, it seems to be the the moral equivalent of calling 1-800-Jerry Brown.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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