Joffe often walks a thin line between colonialism and going native. In his films The Killing Fields
and The Missionary
, he falls off on one side or the other occasionally. In City of Joy
the trick is the point. Swayze plays a young doctor who has given up his practice because he "can't stand sick people." A little late perhaps, but he's a pilgrim to India in search of himself, like so many who went before in the Seventies, and he's not at all happy to find himself in the City of Joy (an impoverished section of Calcutta) where his refusal to practice medicine means that people will die. Collins (Shirley Valentine)
plays a nurse who has managed to keep her school and hospital in the City of Joy running without a big strong American doctor but she's pretty delighted when one turns up. She nags, cajoles, and lectures her new friend until he is battered into submission. There's not much that's original here, nor is that the intention. Joffe uses this comfortable old story to support intertwining subplots about the inhabitants of the City of Joy. Chief among these is the story of a rickshaw puller (Puri), his wife (Azmi) who becomes a nurse in the clinic, and their very cute children. They and the clinic are threatened by neighborhood gangsters who increase their demands for loyalty and tribute until the price cannot be paid. Joffe also brings in a colony of lepers to make sure all the emotional chords have been hit. He's fascinated by the human will to survive and the ability to love under any circumstances. Much is broadly drawn, especially the chief of the gangsters, Malik, who is simply evil on the hoof. Yet, when there is any danger that the action might slow down, all Joffe has to do is pull back and show the teeming streets of Calcutta where beauty and horror coexist. The city is the star of this movie and Joffe uses Swazye as our guide. Like Waterson in The Killing Fields
and Irons in The Missionary
, Joffe allows these western actors to be his stand-in and acknowledges his role as an outsider and as a biased witness. As always with Joffe, there is a faint whiff of sanctimony but perhaps it's hypocrisy to make too big a deal of it. After all, we're going to see this movie because Swayze is in it and Joffe directed it -- because we want what's comfortable and familiar -- but we leave with images of amazing Calcutta swirling in our heads.