East meets West as the lives and fortunes of rickshaw man Hasari (Puri) and American down 'n' out doctor Max (Swayze) entwine in Calcutta.
For those who marvelled and blubbed, at Roland Joffe's masterly portrait of human fortitude in The Killing Fields, and those who marvelled, and blubbed, at Dominique Lapierre's masterly portrait of human fortitude The City Of Joy, the tantalising prospect of the two coming together in Joffe's adaptation of Lapierre's book would seem almost too much to bear. It's scarcely a surprise, then, that the result - though occasionally moving - is something of a disappointment.
For his take on the true story of Hasari Pal, the peasant from Bihar who heads with his family to the seething conurbation of Calcutta, Joffe has entirely ditched the book's other main character, the Polish priest Stephan Kovalski, and brought the young American surgeon Max Lowe (Swayze) to the forefront, chucking in for some baffling reason (Sex appeal? Love interest? International star name?) none other than Pauline Collins as a selfless aid worker in Hasari's slum, nicknamed The City Of Joy.
Luckily, Swayze makes a decent fist of his role as the "I'm no hero" doctor pitching up in the slum by accident, aided admirably by Om Puri as the rickshaw-puller Hasari in a performance of rare power, pathos and dignity. Sadly, however, the issues here - urbanisation, homelessness and the complexities of Third World aid, to name but a few - would seem to be just too vast for Joffe's canvas, with each dilemma touched upon, but with no real conclusions drawn from it all.
With an entirely invented denouement of Good beating the living crap out of Evil (manifested by the excellent Art Malik's loathsome slum gangster), one can't help but feel that this time Joffe has bitten off rather more than he can chew. From a director with a lesser track record, this would be a remarkably assured peek into the nightmares of Indian slum life, and a halfway decent adaptation of truly majestic book. From the team that produced it, however, one comes away impressed, but unsatisfied.
An outstanding performance from the ever-reliable Puri, and Swayze's obvious efforts, almost drag City of Joy somewhere it doesn't deserve to be. Another literary masterpiece in the hands of a visionary director, which excites rather less than it disappoints.