Philosophy and Film - Return to Main Page
 


CITY OF JOY (1992)


PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Ethical altruism

CHARACTERS: Max Lowe (Patrick Swayze), Joan (clinic owner), Hasari Pal (rickshaw driver), Kamla Pal (Hasare’s wife), Ashoka (the Godfather’s cruel son)

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR ROLAND JOFFE: The Killing Fields (1984), The Mission (1986), The Scarlet Letter (1995), Vatel (2000)

SYNOPSIS: Max, a young, disillusioned physician, goes to India on a personal quest for meaning. Confronted with appalling poverty and caste system prejudice, he stays to help in a local clinic run by Joan. Max is drawn into social politics when the local Godfather dies and his cruel son increases oppression in the neighborhood. Max encourages an uprising against the cruel son, which in turn increases oppression, particularly for a poor rickshaw driver named Hasari. The uprising eventually succeeds, and the cruel son loses his leverage.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

1. In “City of Joy” Joffe attempts to follow the formula of his earlier Academy Award winning film “The Killing Fields”: a naive American goes to an oppressive third world country, and is transformed by the horrors that he witnesses. In both movies, the role of the American is meant as a vehicle by which the movie viewer can connect with the foreign environment. One reviewer of “City of Joy” stated that the film would have been better if cut out Max’s character and focused instead on Hasari’s struggle. Is Max’s moral transformation a dispensable element of the film?

2. Hasari exemplifies the Hindu law of karma: good things come to good people, either in this life or the next. Through his honesty and hard work, he finds economic stability and a community of friends. Ashoka exemplifies the reverse law of karma: bad things come to bad people either in this life or the next. At the end of the movie, Hasari is living in a slum, and Ashoka in a mansion. Is the law of karma nonsense without brining in an afterlife to balance things out?

3. In a scene from an early draft of the screenplay, not included in the movie, when leaving his home town for Calcutta, Hasari’s father says to him, “A man's journey to the end of his obligations is a very long road.” Hindu social philosophy stipulates a series of duties that people should perform, starting with one’s family and ending with the achievement of spiritual liberation. Hasari experiences phenomenal hardships attempting to fulfill is family duties. Does someone like him really have time for any further social duties beyond those to his family?

4. Joan states that “In life a person really only has three choices ... To run, to spectate, to commit.” What’s so bad about running or spectating so long as we don’t harm people in the process?

5. After Max delivers the baby in the leper colony, he states, “I don’t even feel good about what we did down there today, brining in another little mouth to feed in this cesspool of a country.” Considering that overpopulation is the cause of most of the problems depicted in the film, isn’t Max’s reaction correct?

6. The Godfather stated that money was important since it allowed him to build a wall to separate himself from the poverty on the outside. This is precisely what we have done in America regarding half of the world’s population that lives in poverty. How far do our responsibilities to third world countries extend?

7. Max half-heartedly tries to change the local people’s attitudes about social outcasts, the subjugation of women, and the oppression of workers. Should he have stuck to his area of expertise, namely health care?

8. From an American, one of the more disturbing Indian social practices in the movie is the dowry – money or goods that the bride’s father presents to the grooms father as an inducement to settle a marriage. In a scene from the early draft of the screenplay, the groom’s father states, “I am firm in requiring for my exceptional son the bicycle, 1000 rupees... and one ounce of gold.” Hasari responds, “That's robbery! The child of a rajah might be worth that, and I'm not even sure of that! Impossible!” The movie seems to accept this custom as part of Indian culture, as distasteful as it is to outsiders. To that extent, the movie endorses the moral view of cultural relativism. Why not just accept the poverty, sexism, and moral degeneracy as part of India’s culture as well?

9. In the end, did Max do more harm than good by meddling in the affairs of others?


 
Philosophy and Film - Return to Main Page