CALCUTTA — At first glance, it seemed like just another Sunday morning in Mir Bahar Ghat, a teeming and gritty cobblestoned market street in the heart of an urban hell.
Flanked by the stench of disease and human waste, laborers and children scrubbed themselves in a poisoned well. A dozen filthy pigs nibbled their way through a steaming heap of yesterday's garbage. Barefoot bearers, the baskets on their heads overladen with everything from cucumbers to cooking oil, elbowed through a human river that surged through the street.
And, as the temple bell clanged outside, tenements came to life as thousands awakened to what appeared to be just another day of poverty and hope for tomorrow.
But then, someone yelled, "Roll 'em!" And then, "Action!" And suddenly Patrick Swayze, sweaty and bleeding and 10,000 miles from his ranch outside Los Angeles, was hurtling through Mir Bahar Ghat in a rickshaw pulled by veteran Indian actor Om Puri.
There was Swayze running back up the street, chasing a motorcycle through the madness.
And there was Swayze in a jostling match with a Calcutta cop--all under the eye of Hollywood's intense, British-born director, Roland Joffe, and thousands of mystified onlookers who watched the strange marriage of fantasy and reality on their street.
But well behind the scenes, there was something far stranger taking place in Mir Bahar Ghat last Sunday. It was the simple fact that Joffe, Swayze and their army of assistant directors and technicians were there at all.
Sunday marked the first time that they were permitted to film in the streets of Calcutta, since a bitter controversy over their movie, "The City of Joy," bubbled over into a court order just one month into the 13-week shooting schedule.
The March 7 order that banned shooting on location for "City of Joy" marked the culmination of street demonstrations, angry official condemnations and at least one firebomb attack on the crew's set. The Calcutta High Court lifted the ban last week only after hours of intense debate. Thus, Sunday's return to Mir Bahar Ghat represented a key victory for Joffe in a project that clearly has become far more than a film for him and for Swayze.
Already, the events swirling around this film have combined to make this a classic confrontation between Hollywood and the real world it seeks to portray.
Patterned loosely on passages from Dominique Lapierre's novel, Joffe's "City of Joy" had been sharply criticized by several of Calcutta's leading leftists, artists and politicians as "the selling of poverty" even before filming began Feb. 9.
Such censure was expected by Joffe and his producers: In Calcutta, among the world's last Communist strongholds, the ruling coalition of Marxists, Leninists and Stalinists tends to see neocolonialist and imperialist conspiracies not only by foreigners but even by India's central government in New Delhi.
Much of the criticism has focused on Lapierre's 1985 novel, based on hundreds of interviews in a \o7 bustee, \f7 or urban village. In the West the book was widely acclaimed, but here it was condemned by many as "social pornography."
Now, it would seem, the alleged sins of the book have been visited on the movie.
Typical of the case against "City of Joy" was a speech last week by Buddhadev Bhattacharya, culture and information minister and heir apparent to power in the state of West Bengal, where Calcutta is located:
"I have myself read the book and found that it is sickening and full of sky-high errors. I have even gone through the final, 13th version of the oft-amended film script, sent it to exclusive persons and obtained their opinion," Bhattacharya said. "The book has been written from the racist viewpoint of the whites. That viewpoint has been preserved intact in the film script. It has been shown that the people of this city are unconcerned about the misery of their fellow citizens. Only the whites are the saviors."
Bhattacharya equally made clear, though, that his government is legally incapable of stopping the filming, which was approved in 1989 by New Delhi. And indeed, it has not been the Calcutta government behind the angriest assaults on the project, but a single, crusading newspaper.
For the Bengali-language daily Aaj Kal, the campaign against "City of Joy" has become a \o7 cause celebre, \f7 particularly since the death of one of its reporters a few days after he covered an on-location shoot in the sprawling Horticultural Gardens.
According to Aaj Kal, reporter Soumitra Ghosh, 25, "was attacked by 'City of Joy' musclemen in front of the police. These musclemen caught him and beat him up; they kicked him with their boots on the knees and abused him filthily, using foul language. Their attitude was that they had powerful backing and could do what they liked. Ghosh fell on the ground, and they still hit him on the chest with a stick. Ghosh ran limping from the horticultural park." And, a few days later, he died.