A young Bengali, arms waving and eyes wide, has flagged down the taxis carrying cast and crew toward the enclosed set of City of Joy in Calcutta, and now he’s stopped the one bearing director Roland Joffé. ”Very dangerous to go further,” he shouts. ”Huge riot. Three people shot!”
Climbing out, Joffé surveys the street ahead, which is illuminated mostly by lightning from a growing storm in the east.
”You must turn back!” the young man repeats. ”Very dangerous!”
Protests and riots have dogged the City of Joy production throughout its three-month stay in Calcutta, but this time there is no sign of trouble. ”Everyone back into the car,” Joffé says.
”But he said that there’s shooting,” protests the nervous driver.
Joffé’s voice is tinged with amusement and exasperation. ”He’s obviously got his story blown a little out of proportion,” he says, and the motorcade proceeds — uneventfully.
After shooting The Killing Fields in Thailand and The Mission in South America, Roland Joffé is no stranger to the vagaries of exotic locations. But Joy, based on the epic novel by Dominique Lapierre, with Patrick Swayze playing an American doctor seeking spiritual renewal in India, proved one of his most trying movies. In order to shoot in the city of 11 million people, the production’s 10 tons of gear had to be shipped by sea, then hauled by trucks over primitive roads. Protestors, charging that the film exploits the poverty of Calcutta, at one point lobbed firebombs over the wall of the enclosed set. But nobody was hurt, and the crowds that mobbed Swayze’s Indian costars, Om Puri and Shabana Azmi, whenever they filmed on the city’s streets turned out to be almost as big a problem.
For Swayze, City of Joy is a chance to break free of the romantic-hunk roles that have made him hot box office but hemmed him in dramatically. ”This represents everything I’ve worked for as an actor,” he says. ”The depth of the story, the quality of the director — this is the perfect next step for me as a person as well as an actor.” But the sprawling, earnest film is also a gamble: Audiences may have a hard time buying Swayze as a soul-sick doctor, and box office prospects may be slim.
Joffé knows all that; nonetheless, this desperately poor city has won his heart. ”I love Calcutta because it’s like a slide of all aspects of human existence,” he says. ”I think if I had to send 30 seconds of film to outer space to best demonstrate the full range of human experience, I would send 30 seconds of Calcutta.” He began his research on the city by driving into one of its most crowded slums, over the objections of another nervous driver. ”We emerged four hours later,” he says, ”after we’d had a 14-member puppet show put on for us by the people who lived in a tiny little house. We’d been served tea and food. And it turned out that the puppet master was internationally known. There wasn’t anywhere in the world he hadn’t been with his puppetry. And, in a way, that’s what my film is about: Just because a man doesn’t have the money to own a Beverly Hills house doesn’t mean he isn’t an individual with his own richness.”
As night filming begins on the open-air set, the approaching storm threatens to drench the shot. Again and again, Joffé rehearses the scene, in which Pauline Collins (Shirley Valentine), as a health-clinic worker, convinces Swayze to aid in an emergency delivery. Finally, the scene completed, Swayze jams a cigarette into his mouth and strides up to a porch overlooking the shantytown.
”You find most times that the leading-man roles are Milquetoast and boring,” he says, but this part offers more of a challenge. ”He’s got deep problems,” Swayze says of his character, Dr. Max Lowe, ”but he covers it all up with joking and laughing. The scary part about doing this is exactly what I feel about coming to this place: To live and be around people who have so little, with so much suffering in their lives, who is going to care about this guy and his little problems?”
To prepare for the role, Swayze worked for several days in Mother Teresa’s hospice for the dying and home for lepers. One heartrending patient was a young boy with a serious burn: The wound had been dressed weeks earlier, and Swayze had to remove a bandage that had grown into the skin. “I’m not squeamish, but working with this little kid, trying to get the bandage off him — it was incredibly painful, but his courage was inspirational. These people live with such suffering, yet when they smile, the whole world lights up. There’s some true power to be learned in this place.” He pauses. “I studied Buddhism for years and this is from whence it all came.”
In some respects, Swayze’s clinical work proved too moving. “I’ve had to cut that out for a while,” he says. “Working in the clinics was opening me up much too fast — my character is still in a stage when he’s walking the edge.”
City of Joy‘s difficulties didn’t end when filming wrapped last May. The movie’s release date has jumped around the calendar (sometimes a sign of a studio’s indecision about how to market a film). But Joffé says the picture has performed well in test screenings. “It’s the honesty that’s really hitting home,” he says, “the rawness of the experience of Calcutta.” Still, for audiences who might not ordinarily rush out to see a film about life in the slums of India, having a star of Swayze’s caliber can’t hurt. Says Joffé, perhaps optimistically, “People feel they’re discovering another side of him.”