City of Joy

There's something absurdly, even offensively, overscaled about this film version of Dominique Lapierre's book, set among the poor of Calcutta. As Max Loeb, a bitter, disillusioned American doctor who's abandoned medicine and come to India, Patrick Swayze looks remarkably fit and untroubled. In no time, Dr. Max is helping English volunteer Joan Bethel (Pauline Collins) set up a clinic. Later, he dances with lepers and 20,000 extras in a monsoon whipped up by special-effects guru Nick Allder (the Star Wars trilogy).

Director Roland Joffé, who went from the excellence of The Killing Fields to the excess of Fat Man and Little Boy, keeps pumping Mark Medoff's script with big moments. There's flood, fire, pestilence, a breech birth and the maiming of children.

What gets buried in all this box-office insurance is the story of Hasari Pal (Om Puri), a peasant who pulls a rickshaw to support his wife, Kamla (Shabana Azmi), and kids. Puri and Azmi are noted Indian actors, and the authenticity of their portrayals suggests the intimate epic that might have been in less clumsy hands.

From The Archives Issue 184: April 10, 1975