Patrick Swayze Dance with Death

There will be no “Dirty Dancing 3” it seems. Sad, but at least we can luxuriate in the recollections of knowing that “DD2” (2004 – where Patch was a dance instructor) will have been the last outing for the Rambo of the ballroom, and the flame will never be dimmed. I am dismayed that he has cancer, but also not surprised since his delicate health has always been an issue. There was a time, soon after his work in Kolkata on the film “City of Joy”, that we were very concerned. Roland Joffe, director, had had to build a secure fresh water pool for the monsoon scene of that film since to have his star swim in regular Kolkata water would have been too big a risk. After the shoot we got some souvenirs too (a jar full, see below) – we were fans not only of “DD”, but also his excellent, Keanu-mocking role in “Point Break”. But it was the “City of Joy” stuff that was a worry, Swayze said at the Melbourne premier that while he could normally command a seven million dollar fee for a film, he so wanted to do this one “for the people of Calcutta” that he accepted just one million dollars. Here are some excerpts from my “Rumour” chapter on the film [with pictures added for my amusement] detailing the story of the fake slum, the fake promo shots, fake protests and fake stool – a farce all round in a city that deserves more than a dirty two-step coin trick:

Cinematic Calcutta

This chapter considers cinematic Calcuttas … The Joffe film, “City of Joy” is the primary focus because this film was made in co-operation with volunteers from the Preger clinic living in Modern Lodge. It presents highly-worked, advanced media technology, scripted and choreographed version of the rumour of Calcutta, so that the experience of travellers and visitors as portrayed in the film version … Released in 1992, “City of Joy”, directed by Joffe and starring Swayze alongside Om Puri and Shabana Azmi, offers an opportunity to evaluate the role of the movie camera in the presentation of India, and Calcutta (to the world beyond its shores). The distribution circuits of the film are all the more relevant here since City of Joy takes as its subject a ‘volunteer’ visitor who works in a street clinic very similar to that in which the travellers I met worked. Indeed, ‘the same’.

The plot of “City of Joy” is simple. The film begins with the death of an anonymous patient on an operating table in a modern American hospital. The surgeon in charge of the operation suffers anguish and despair over his failure. Cut to India.
Hasari (Om Puri) and family travel to Calcutta by bullock and cart, bus then train – the acceleration of this travel trajectory is not accidental. With warnings from a Grandmother to “stay away from the cinema”, they arrive to the crowded Howrah station amidst a Communist rally (which is the only scene which indicates any formal political presence in the city at all). They spend a first night camped by the Hooghly river and are then deceived into renting someone’s apartment by the charlatan Mr Ganguly. After Ganguly disappears, and Hasari and family begin to settle in, they are suddenly chased from the apartment, which was not for rent, and was not Mr Ganguly’s in the first place. Having lost all their savings, they mark out a space of pavement.

Dr Max (Patrick Swayze) arrives at Sudder Street’s Fairlawn Hotel (no bar fridge, offers of a “lady”) and takes a shower, musing over his absent passport, which he has left at an ashram, and his earnest quest to find enlightenment/escape from his failed life in America as a surgeon. In the first of what are many uncommon occurrences for this ‘typical’ American tourist, the porter from the Fairlawn brings Poomina, (Suneeta Sengupta) an allegedly 20 year old “lady”, with whom Max has “some problem” (a euphemism for sex?), but resolves this by going out drinking. As must happen with all Americans stranded in a ‘foreign’ city, Max ends up in a sleazy nightclub, the drinking bout leads to a bar fight, as goondas bash him – a very unusual event to befall a tourist in even the most seedy of Calcutta’s bars, more likely in New York – and he is robbed of all belongings. Hasari, from his pavement space nearby, intervenes and brings the near unconscious Max, with Poomina’s assistance, to Joan’s ‘City of Joy’ street clinic. Joan (Pauline Collins) patches up his wounds, shows him around the clinic, its small dispensary and school, and pays his way back to his comfortable hotel.

Max “doesn’t like sick people” and resists Joan’s obvious plans to recruit him as doctor for the clinic. Hasari learns to pull a rickshaw, bringing Max back to the hotel in a mad zig-zag through proverbially crowded streets. The unlikely entrance of such a rickshaw into the grounds of the hotel is not the least of the inaccuracies (or rather, artistic licence) of the film – the street protocols and hierarchy of business and propriety which operate even in Calcutta’s relatively small tourist trade are glossed over in this realist portrayal.

Rickshaw work is controlled by the family of Ghatak, whose son Ashoka (Art Malik) – the one whose gang beat up on Max – demands that Hasari ‘neigh’ like a horse if he wants to pull a rickshaw. The more pragmatic father examines Hasari’s chest (for signs of tuberculosis) and demands “loyalty”, and Hasari becomes a rickshaw wallah. While in Pilkana, the real City of Joy, hand-pulled rickshaw’s have been long replaced by bicyclist-driven ones, artistic licence again erases the contemporary conditions of Calcutta and no recognition is made of the Calcutta Municipal Corporation campaign to end the use of hand-pulled rickshaws. Although the hand-pulled rickshaw is still prevalent in the inner city area, this fictive shifting of them to the City of Joy is another calculated inaccuracy: such omissions of urban planning efforts in Calcutta are significant devices in presenting the city as the exemplar of massively abstracted ‘grinding poverty’. Upon establishing himself as a rickshaw wallah, Hasari and family move into a room in the City of Joy. Hasari plans to save for his daughter’s dowry (no criticism of this practice acknowledged, despite signs of a school, and thus by implication the usual campaigns to prevent the illegal practice of dowry and the many tragedies to which it leads through extortionate demands).

The notion that Ashoka and the Ghatak family organization are somehow, consciously or unconsciously placed in the metaphoric location of the Left Front Government and its officials in Joffe’s version of Calcutta may occur to some. As the slippage from specific characterizations to generalized ‘how things are in Calcutta’, and with the conspicuous absence of the communist parties in most of the film, it seems clear that Ghatak, as embodiment of all evil and corruption, will be associated with formal authority in the city. The message is that the only authority in Calcutta is corrupt. This crypto-anti-communist lesson from Joffe will be acknowledged and internalized to varying degrees of conscious recognition – and moreso if audiences are aware of any of the wranglings Joffe had with the Government of West Bengal, Bengali intellectuals and the Calcutta press over the propriety of making this film. While it is not possible to show that the characterizations of the Ghatak family must be seen as a Joffe slag against the CPI(M) through ‘metonymic’ substitution, this does raise questions of the motivations of those involved in this sort of film-making, and that perhaps the film is about Joffe’s, and Swayze’s, frustrations more than much else. The explorations of Swayze’s tortured self, the search for enlightenment and meaning, the works of ‘charity’, in a psychoanalysis by substitution, can be read as Joffe’s own experience. Despite criticism from almost every quarter in Calcutta – from the Government who banned his film to other film-makers, including Satyajit Ray who said he couldn’t film on the streets of the city – Joffe belligerently and relentlessly pursued his project. There were great difficulties encountered in scenes filmed in the streets, although most of the film was shot in a specially built million dollar set in suburban Calcutta. Swayze recounted the excitement of filming with a certain tension in a promotional interview: “we were forced to just set up the camera and shoot before anyone noticed what we were up to”. (Less generous critics on the roof of the Modern Lodge called this the clandestine realismo approach to film-making).
Max, meanwhile, is trying to buy a hamburger in a streetside “no beef” cafe. He spots Ashoka, gives chase, but is detained by the police. Rescued a second time by Joan, he comments upon her work in the street clinic: “are you just nuts, or are you doing penance here?” Joan replies with the first of many pro-charity soliloquys that would not seem all that out of place at a Modern Lodge roof-top meeting: “I came on a whim in the first place, but then I stayed. In the beginning it was really frustrating trying to convince them not to be so bloody passive, and then I realised I was fighting a thousand years of passive acceptance”. The theme of passivity is the recurrent explanation of people’s predicament throughout the film.

Max: “Maybe you should stop doing this”. Joan: “Maybe I should … but I’m not very good at loving just one person, it seems to work out better if I spread it around a little bit”. After this exchange Max reaffirms his faith in the Dallas Cowboys, American cinema and Mickey Mouse. Joan’s “simple-minded, but tidy” three part explanation of the ways of the world – there are runaways, observers, and the committed – does not seem to impress as Hasari invites him to share a meagre dinner. After a planting ceremony of seeds in a pot on behalf of his daughter’s dowry, the farmer who must always watch something grow, asserts the ‘simple’ joys of life. But very soon after, this tranquil scene is disrupted by an emergency which only Max can deal with, and although there is no morphine, diazepam … local anaesthetic, he is able to assist in the delivery of a breach birth – an awesome scene in which the doctor asserts the full authority of the medical tradition contra indigenous superstition and fear. Amidst all this, Hasari’s wife Kamla (Shabana Azmi) assists the doctor on the strength of her experience as a mother of three, and earns a position as his nurse when – after the loss of his airticket home, and a little soul searching: “I don’t even feel good about what we did down there today, bringing another little mouth to feed into this cesspool” – he ‘volunteers’ to help in the clinic on a continuing basis. Max: “You call this a clinic!” Joan: “We’ve got no brain scanner either Max, but we’re doing the best we can” (these lines, and a scene involving the sale of donated milk, were offered to Joffe, I suspect, from the chief humourist at the Preger Middleton Row clinic).

In the meantime Poomina has been ordered to attend school under Max’s directive. Max and Joan visit Ghatak (Shyamanand Jalan), who offers Max a lesson in goonda philosophy: “I have learnt not to trust those who say they do things for the benefit of others”, which Max violently rejects. This is an interesting refusal which encodes much of Joffe’s message; unlike the passive and yoked people of the City of Joy, Max will not bow down before the power of the oppressor Ghatak. He calls upon the people of the City of Joy to rise up against the Ghatak family: “You should get pissed at the people who are really using you”. This is as admirable a message as it is naive. Even the most cursory history lesson about Bengal would have taught Joffe that any suggestion that Calcuttans need American coaching in order to organize a political mobilisation is wholly absurd. Passivity here works as Western arrogance and denial displaced by self-importance. Near the beginning of the film Grandmother had warned Hasari’s sons Shambu and Manooj to “stay away from the cinema”, but Max, a film-buff’s fanatic, had taken them to see an action-hero epic. Max is the agent of (cinematic) change, although a mature assessment of the effects of cinema upon him in his youth, where his adulterous father packed him off to the movies while pursuing his affairs, might lead to other evaluations of the impact of paternal directives. While Joffe does not take up the metaphor of movies and paternalism which could be read into this scene, the self-referentiality of Joffe’s cinema jokes may have unforeseen dysfunctions which should not be lost on critical audiences who are likely to note that the real “users” in this film are the Americans, Swayze and Joffe, and the imperialist system which makes possible this sort of cinematic characterization of Calcutta by wealthy celluloid “bosses”. Fatherly protection and paternalistic charity are the guiding themes. The rest of the film follows the script of classics like The Wild Bunch and The Seven Samurai, as Max leads the people of the City of Joy to organise and, subsequently, Hasari inspires the rickshaw wallahs to rebel against the oppression of the Ghatak ‘family’. There are several almost predictable setbacks: Hasari contracts tuberculosis, a common complaint among rickshaw wallahs; he loses his rickshaw to Ashoka and he is forced to sell his blood (a sensational aspect of poverty included in the story and around which the author of the book “City of Joy”, Dominique Lapierre, was severely criticised); an attack is organised by Ashoka and his goondas upon the leprosy clinic; and there is a near-death action-camera experience for Max during the monsoon flood (the 250,000 gallons of water for the flood was specially pumped into the watertight set Joffe had built to enable monsoon filming without regular ‘polluted’ monsoon water – the entire project overseen by Star Wars trilogy special effects wizard Nick Allder).

There is one terrible scene where Ashoka traps Poomina and uses a razor to cut her cheeks to “accentuate that beautiful smile”, although Max’s surgical skill is sufficient to restore her beauty. Moving from active woman to silent ‘child’, Poomina’s character develops in a way that underscores certain gendered and ethnocentric assumptions about Indian women. From an assertive, but fallen woman who initiates all interaction between herself and Max, and brings him to the City of Joy clinic, her increasing passivity contrasts to her initial resourcefulness as she is ordered off to school, is attacked with the razor by Ashok, is carried to safety by Max who sews her slit mouth shut – making her unable to speak in the entire second half of the film. After functioning as the catalyst for Max’s arrival in the City of Joy, as well as providing a hint of exotic and erotic intrigue, Poomina is silenced almost as completely as Hasari’s daughter, who, without a word, and possibly in Poomina’s place, is married at the end of the film with the dowry that Hasari has almost killed himself to earn.

After this, the film’s denouement is a scene reminiscent of the manger sequence in Jerusalem in late December two thousand years ago. Amidst a grey Calcutta, just one shining light beacons for all Christian souls – the clinic of the City of Joy – as the camera pulls back to a full panorama and the credits roll.


There is much in “City of Joy” that people could find offensive. The simplicity of the emotive codes in which poverty and the conditions of Calcutta are explained away as problems of passivity, and localized exploitation, avoids any analysis of the global economic factors which depress such sectors in Calcutta. Max, even though the audience recognizes that he is from the wealthy ‘West’, is still presented as the man with the answers, despite the self-help rhetoric of the clinic. It is never acknowledged that Max’s own patronizing attitudes and ‘answers’ are founded upon the full might of neocolonial exploitation of Calcutta by international capitalism. Nor does the representation of women in the film, as smiling, passive, beautiful and increasingly silent beings, provide any degree of analytic sophistication. Such formulaic representations of bodies cannot achieve more. The absence of those who in other (local) narratives of the city are seen to be doing things in Calcutta, be it the Corporation, or the militant communists and CPI(M), simply affirms the film’s misrepresentations of Calcuttans as passive (apolitically joyous), and Americans as those-who-have-answers. This is not Calcutta, and although I’m not sure what is, or how its diversity could be represented (but see the films of Mrinal Sen), it is possible to argue that despite being ‘about’ Westerners in Calcutta, Joffe’s film does not at any stage address an explanation of the problems of Calcutta in terms of international relations, nor does it consider the dimensions of local conditions – positive and negative – in the context of Calcutta’s political history, or provide more than a gloss over the factors of class and caste which should take at least some place in any narrative. That he prefers instead to lay all blame on a local petty bully boy, in an emotional and sentimental heart-throb wild west adventure in which Patrick Swayze saves the day – hi ho Silver – is nothing short of amazing.

Can the camera, in the hands of a Western visitor, see otherwise? If “images of Calcutta are restless and constantly shifting in meaning” as Joffe says (Filmnotes 1992) is it possible to disrupt the code that he has played out here? There are other films of Calcutta, but I do not think the ‘difference’ that these films display is a difference that enters or effects the codifications that determine Joffe’s images. The reasons for this are prejudices and ethnocentrisms that are not specific to the camera, but are neither disrupted nor displaced by it either. Imperialist business-as-usual seems to be the order of the day – the camera is a fold in perception, and yet nothing much has changed. Similarly, Joffe can present himself as a more sensitive film-maker, alert to many of the pitfalls and assumptions of cultural difference, able to recognise at least a degree of the indeterminancies of meaning in which he is involved – “Calcutta taught me to take nothing at face value” (Joffe, Filmnotes 1992), and yet still make a very conventional film which reiterates Kipling-like arrogances.

There are too many of these bad news stories in a city which gets a bad press. Its inscription as the exemplary site of photogenic poverty and overcrowding is continually reinforced, the analysis and action which might address Calcutta’s problems is not forthcoming, and despite all this Joffe persisted in forcing his production onto our screens. In Calcutta the filming was bizarre; riots outside, and invasions of, the set, hijacking of the cast’s food truck, union bans, huge crowds come to see the Indian film stars, stone throwing, police lathi charges (bamboo baton), delays of all kinds, the shooting of the film attracted much – perhaps too much – attention. There were, it seems, also some problems with Patrick Swayze’s bowels: in April 1991, Modern Lodge volunteer workers were able to auction off a stool sample bottle with the star’s name upon it found among junk donated by the departing film crew. If we were interested in authenticity we might expect to find Dr. Max in “City of Joy” spending most of his time in the bathroom attending to his diarrhoea. This, of course, would be unseemly in a popular film, however much it would resonate with the experience of visitors and their ongoing shit-talk. The viscous limit of “City of Joy” is reached by blood, childbirth and a fairly sanitized focus upon the stumps of leprosy. With a fabricated slum, with imitation monsoons from pumped bore water, hand-pulled rickshaws where there are bicycles, joy in destitution, and what the film crew described as ‘chaos all around’, it is still a wonder that the film appeared at all (a tribute to Joffe’s cash reserves). During the period of filming there were numerous reviews, pro and con, and promotional articles in the Calcutta press reporting the sensations of riots and intrigues on the set. A whole gossip and rumour system in itself. Subsequently the whole affair has entered more literary writings as a background event in other stories about Calcutta. For example a character in Sunetra Gupta’s novel “The Glassblower’s Breath” announces his successful tender for the contract to build Joffe’s set: “So he would be building a slum, a slum to slum all slums in this city of slum, for no slum had proved slum enough for the City of Joy … Do you feel no shame?” (Gupta 1993:233).

Wholesome purchase and transportation of slum dwellers’ houses went into the construction of the ‘City of Joy’ set. One volunteer noted that the bustee dwellers must have thought Joffe was mad; ‘he comes in, sees the broken down roof of hessian and the tin sheets and says, “I love it, I’ll have it” and peels off three or four hundred rupees to give to the owner. Then his henchmen get to work, remove the old wrecked roof as carefully as possible and replace it with a strong solid new roof!’ (Kath). Yes, it is crazy. The old roof is fitted into Hollywood’s authentic Calcutta.

As a coda to this, the scene in “City of Joy” where Max gives a rupee to the begging children can stand as an emblem for all the themes of third world tourism and charity. Max plays this out as a sleight of hand in a way that recalls Derrida’s presentation of Baudelaire’s counterfeit coin tale. Unlike Lévi-Strauss who dismisses the begging child’s call for one anna as ‘pathetic’, Max engages with the children, and amuses them with coin tricks. Here we can read a routine of savage curiosity over colonial magic often played out to remind Western audiences of their technological advantages. Max is soon overwhelmed by the numbers of children his offer of coins attract and he is forced to flee – the very same scene appears in John Byrum’s 1984 film version of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge, where Bill Murray arrives on the steps of the Ganges in Varanasi4. What does the coin trick signify here? Is it that the Western visitor has the power to give and yet also to fake the gift, and abandon the effort when the demand gets too much?

The coin, as symbol of money, is not, here, the universal marker of value that it is in the money form for Marx. The burden of money in Marx is to be both a commodity exchangeable for itself as well as for all other commodities. Max’s coin cannot be exchanged. The coin, however, is a marker of an exchange in another way – the coin given to a beggar is a marker of power. This is a transaction which shares its structure with the appropriation of photography or film, an abstract directional exchange. Max exchanges his coin for the return that comes to all who give … The coin Max gives has its value “stripped away” (Marx 1858/1973:147) and it comes to stand for a social relation, so that the trick of this scene is that the gift of a coin, as any similar scene of ‘poverty’ is reinvested through the media circuits and wider economy of received images of India. This scene travels. In another context Spivak provides an analysis of this counterfeit and quotes Marx as saying: “in the friction with all kinds of hands, pouches, pockets, purses … the coin rubs off” (Marx in Spivak 1985:81), recalling that Nietzsche too mentions coins which have lost their face through rubbing. This occurs in his famous comment that truths are only metaphors, of which we have forgotten their illusory nature – “coins no longer of account as coins” (in Spivak intro to Derrida 1967/1976:xxii). Another formulation; in Capital, Marx says, “During their currency coins wear away” (Marx 1867/1967:125). “Im Umlauf verschleissen namlich die goldmunzen, die eine mehr, die andere weniger” (Das Kapital p.139).

From: The Rumour of Calutta: Tourism, Charity and the Poverty of Representation. Zed 1996.

The pictures I have included here also tell a story – here they are in order:Patrick and Suneeta; advert for City of Joy with Howrah bridge in background (remember this pose); Howrah Bridge itself; original scene for the ad pic with Art Malik as goonda-henchman – with no Howrah Bridge; and finally, a two-step trick just to show my love for PS is boundless – our two families; made into one, since we are all having the time of our lives…

and I never felt like this before

Yes I swear it’s the truth

And I owe it all to you”


One thought on “Patrick Swayze Dance with Death

  1. I saved your Burn Baby Burn post

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