Although Director Roland Joffé brought his cast and crew to Calcutta for TK months to film the epic City of Joy, ironically, more than half the film was shot not in the city’s notorious slums, but in a sprawling wall-enclosed set built near Calcutta’s dock area.
A 100,000-square-foot re-creation of a Calcutta bustee (slum neighborhood) was painstakingly created by set designer Roy Walker (who won an Oscar of his work on 1975’s Barry Lyndon), because shooting in the cramped, densely populated areas was nearly impossible. With rusty corrugated-tin shacks, pastel-colored stucco walls blackened by cooking fires, laundry flapping in the breeze, cigarette stands, kiosks, and even dried cow dung for burning, the set was authentic and convincing. The production even had dyed water brought in to simulate the black sludge that flows through Calcutta’s open sewers (it was replaced daily to discourage mosquito breeding).
The 80-plus buildings that comprise the set were scrupulously rendered using photographs of actual bustees as models. The set, which was dismantled after the film wrapped, also included a huge concrete tank to contain the 250,000 gallons of water that would be pumped in for a monsoon sequence.
”The object of art is to conceal art and Roy does that,” says Joffé. ”But with this level of realism, we’re a little concerened that he won’t get the recognition he deserves — on film, no one can tell the set from the city.”