``City of Joy'' extracts passion, power from the poverty of Calcutta

November 13, 1992|By Scott Hettrick | Scott Hettrick,Los Angeles Times


(Columbia TriStar)

A routine story can seem wonderfully fresh if presented in an unfamiliar setting. Such is the case with "City of Joy," a finely woven tapestry of cross-cultures and similar souls that begins with the simplest thread of a story line.

When things don't go smoothly for American surgeon Max Lowe Patrick Swayze), he abandons his career and heads to India to meditate and find himself. After being beaten and robbed, he is taken in by Joan Bethel, an Englishwoman (Pauline Collins) whose relentless voluntary efforts to provide basic medical care and shelter to the most desperate locals proves to be the inspiration Lowe was seeking to bring meaning to his life.

But there is much more to this film, including equally compelling subplots, several terrific supporting performances and the setting of Calcutta, where one could seemingly create a mesmerizing film simply by carrying a camera through the poverty-ridden streets.

Through Lowe we are introduced to Hasari (Om Puri) and his family, also newcomers to Calcutta. Hasari, in turn, introduces us to Indian culture in remarkable detail and accuracy without getting in the way of moving the story along.

Ousted unfairly by his previous employer, Hasari is forced to grovel in front of the neighborhood godfather to be allowed to pull a rickshaw for a living.

It is obviously beneath him, but he has no choice until he meets Lowe, who encourages him to stand up to the godfather. Meanwhile, Lowe befriends Hasari's three children and recruits Hasari's wife, Kamla (Shabana Azmi) to provide assistance at the clinic.

Lowe has no intention of staying permanently in this unfathomable slum and makes it clear that he is simply returning a favor. "I came to find enlightenment," he tells Bethel. "I'm a non-practicing doctor; I don't like sick people." But in Hasari, Lowe sees enviable spirit, determination and will.

When Hasari's rebellion at Lowe's encouragement leaves him without his meager income, it is Hasari who teaches Lowe about resilience and coping with fear. "The gods have not made it easy to be a human being," he says.

Director Roland Joffe ("The Killing Fields") once again elicits tremendous performances from native actors and adds to the overall integrity of the film by shooting entirely on location. One feels that he has pulled no punches to either glamorize or overdramatize the reality of day-to-day life in Calcutta.

Finally, "City of Joy" is a refreshing story wherein Lowe's typically American take-charge, right-any-wrong mentality is not allowed to work until it is tempered by an understanding and compassion for the culture.

Unfortunately, most of the film's virtues, coupled with the 134-minute running time, will be seen as turn-offs to most video customers who are looking for light entertainment.

If it's any encouragement, Swayze is as cute as ever and "City of Joy" has a happy ending.

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