One day a surgeon named Max Lowe walks away from the operating theater and Houston and everything his life stands for. He's dropping out, and maybe in some kind of leftover '60s reflex he decides to travel to Calcutta. He hopes to disappear into the sea of humanity, I guess, and find himself, or peace, or tranquility - he's not quite sure.
Calcutta has other ideas for him. Within a few hours of his arrival he is thrust into the maelstrom of a city where thousands live in the streets, where he is a highly visible rich man, where his medical training is desperately needed. "City of Joy" intercuts his story with the story of another new arrival in Calcutta, a man named Hasari, who comes to the city with his wife and family, seeking work, and is swindled out of all of his money with brutal efficiency.
The stories of the two men cross in Roland Joffe's "City of Joy," based on the novel by Dominique Lapierre. One of their common points of contact is an Irish woman, named Joan Bethel and played by Pauline Collins, who runs a clinic which ministers to the sick and homeless. When she discovers that Max is a surgeon, she exerts quiet but unrelenting pressure on him to help at the clinic.
Max resists at first. He's played by Patrick Swayze, who may seem an odd choice at first for the role, but is convincing as a drifting hedonist who would rather do anything than make a commitment. Although Max's story is the window through which Joffe approaches Calcutta (he apparently thinks we need an American to identify with), the story of Hasari is actually much more interesting, and it is his world that makes the movie worth seeing.