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December 2, 1999


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'He was fond of Indian stories...and asked about ghosts'

Shobha Warrier

The house where Shyamalan shot Praying With Anger As she drove, she thought how different the city was from what she had imagined. She had expected to see a quiet, lazy town on a Sunday morning. But the roads were crowded with vehicles and all of them were in a raring hurry. The engines roared, horns blared and exhaust fumes spewed forth.

The roads were full of potholes. Adding to the problem was the construction work that was going on in the middle of the road. The city mayor wanted to transform the conservative city full of trees on either side of the road into a city full of flyovers.

Traffic was chaotic that morning. Vehicles snarled and moved at a snail's pace. Drivers fumed in anger and cursed each other and the construction work. Road rage seemed to have afflicted everyone.

As if to cleanse the atmosphere that was full of man-made pollutants, raindrops started falling. Tip...tip -- they started slowly, drop by hesitant drop. Soon, it started pouring. The fury of nature masked the roar of the engines and the loud honking for a while.

Even when it poured, people diligently worked to complete the construction of the flyover, perhaps cursing nature and the rain. Even with the windshield wipers working furiously back and forth, she had to try hard to get a glimpse of the road.

From the busy Bangalore highway, she turned into a small tarred road that lead to the Defence Colony near St Thomas Mount. Once she entered the quiet road, nature also calmed down. Now you saw only drops -- drip...drip...drip...again. There was water on either side of the narrow road, a rare sight in the thirsty town that always looked up for a drop of water.

Inside the Defence Colony, you could see kids playing cricket in the huge ground braving the rain. She had thought they stopped play whenever it rained! Cricket is such a passion in the city.

The car meandered through the narrow lanes in the colony. Huge buffaloes stood in the middle of the road like statues refusing to move. After taking several rounds inside the colony, she reached where she had begun; in front of the cricket ground. Finally she found that the house she was searching for was just opposite the cricket ground.

Jaya Villa was the name of the house. The name board said R N Swaminathan. She opened the gate and went inside. An elderly man, dressed smartly in trousers, suspenders and shirt, came out. He was an 86-year-old retired police officer from the Tamil Nadu cadre but he looked only 60 plus.

If you think this is the screenplay of a movie, you are mistaken. It's just that the urge was really strong to visualise everything as if in a movie, as one was going to write about one of the most acclaimed screenplay writers in the world.

Shyamalan's grandparents, R N Swaminathan and wife I mean Manoj 'Night' Shyamalan. The people I was going to meet were his maternal grandparents, who saw Manoj grow from a quiet sensitive boy, who made other children act in front of his movie camera, to a 29-year-old who again made big people act in front of his camera. This is the house where Manoj Night Shyamalan, the hot property in Hollywood, shot his first film, Praying With Anger.

The year was 1970. Swaminathan remembers the day his eldest daughter Jaya delivered a baby boy, her second child. He was in Pondicherry then, still working for the police force. He was on duty when he got the news. He rushed to the hospital, saw the baby and proudly held him for a while; his bundle of joy, his second grandchild, his first grandson. His daughter Jaya went back to the United States after the delivery to continue her work as a doctor.

By then, Swaminathan had retired. So, like many other parents, he and his wife also went to the US to look after their daughter's two children.

From 1970 to 1992, they stayed in the US, looking after his grandchildren. Those 22 years saw six out of their eight children, all doctors, migrate to the US. The spouses of all his six children were doctors. So, it was a hectic, but enjoyable period for the father and mother who shuttled from one house to another, looking after one grand child after another.

In 1992, they were forced to come back to India after Swaminathan's wife fell down while playing with her grandchildren and broke her hipbone. She needed the help of people to move around. Helpers were hard to get in the US and plenty in India. Back in India, Swaminathan and his wife stayed with a daughter of theirs, Alli.

Grandpa Swaminathan sat back in the sofa, closed his eyes and with a smile on his face, started talking. "They used to leave the children with us and go to work. So, practically, we were taking care of the children," he reminisced. "I still remember, even at the age of six or seven, Manoj started shooting movies. By 15, his parents had gifted him a real movie camera. See, he is their only son. So, they oblige him and fulfill all his wishes! He had a room full of toys and he liked to spread them all over the house. But the moment a guest came, he used to gather all of them and take them back to his room. His room was full of books too. His friends' parents used to tell him that he would one day be a big director. It has come true now. I am very happy for him."

Manoj Shyamalan The proud grandfather is all praises for his now-famous grandson. "Manoj was a very intelligent boy and always used to come first in class. He won several scholarships and prizes in school. One day, the principal of his school asked him not to take part in any competition. Do you know why? He wanted other children to get prizes too!" he added.

As a small boy, Manoj never used to go to his grandparents pestering them for stories unlike many other children. His life and dreams rested in the countless books that he had collected. With every visit to India, his Amar Chitra Katha collection increased and his parents visited India every year.

His aunt in Madras, Alli, remembered his thirst for Indian books. "He wanted the whole set of Ramayana, Mahabharata, stories of Krishna etc. In fact, Krishna was his favourite hero and he used to dress up like Krishna with flute, peacock feathers, etc," she said.

Manoj was a fussy eater (still is, his aunt added). He hated food as a small child. Both Paatti (grandma) and Thatha (grandpa) had a tough time feeding the child. On his tricycle, he would go round in circles inside the garage and his grandfather had to go after him with plate and spoon in hand. One day, Thatha found a method to stop him -- he became a traffic policeman and showed the stop signal to the cyclist. And the moment the cyclist stopped, he would thrust the spoon inside his mouth. For several days the grandfather and the grandchild played this game.

Shyamalan's grandfather, R N Swaminathan "After his recent success, I wrote to him, 'you are a big man now. You are a very successful man too. But long back, when you were three or four, I used to feed you when your parents left for work, leaving you with us.' He replied to me very emotionally, 'I cried after reading your letter, Thatha. I will never forget those days. Please ask me whatever help you want.' I wrote to him that I didn't need any help from him. I only want him to be happy," said the grandfather.

One day, when Manoj was four, he refused to come home from his neighbour's house when they were about to have lunch. He also refused to eat with them. Grandpa had no other option but go to the house and carry the stubborn boy back home. The moment they reached home, he said, "Thatha, I am a big boy. Please don't carry me in front of others. They'd feel I am a small boy."

Manoj's Paatti, who was silently listening all this while, added, "He is a wonderful child. He is so fond of me, his Paatti. Last year, he came here to show me his one-year-old daughter. See, I can't travel after the accident. After he got his second child two weeks back, he called me from there and broke the news. But I am yet to see the baby's photo. I am waiting to see his son, my great grandson.

"Yes, Manoj can't speak in Tamil properly. So, it is very difficult to converse for a long time. It doesn't matter at all. Can you believe, his sister's husband, an American, knows a few words in Tamil? The moment he reaches the gate, he shouts 'Paatti!' He is so fond of puris and many such Indian dishes."

But not Manoj. He has no love for Indian food. Though he visits India regularly, he finds it difficult to stay here for long. Indian weather and food scare the man from Philadelphia. He literally starved himself at his aunt's place when he visited last time.

Shyamalan's aunt Alli Venkat According to Alli, "He is not particularly fond of food but he doesn't like Indian food at all. I would make dosa, idli and other such South Indian dishes, but he doesn't touch them. He tolerates chapati. After three days of staying here, he would cry, 'aunt, I am starving!' When he was shooting his first film here, his father sent food packets from US through some nurse who came to Kerala. And I used to cook those things for him." Indian roads too scare him to death. To escape the tension, he would close his eyes or cry out, 'careful, careful!'

As a small boy, he had a lot of questions to ask about Indian mythologies, particularly about ghosts! And it was aunt Alli who used to tell him ghost stories when he visited her house. "He was very fond of Indian stories -- he had a lot of doubts about ghosts and asked so many questions about ghosts," she revealed.

At 13, Manoj was here in India to attend the wedding of one of his aunts. Alli came to know later from the other children that he had shot a film with his movie camera. "I got to know about the film only when my kids narrated the experience to me. Manoj never told me about his movies but I knew he was shooting inside the rooms." Adults were not permitted to act in his movies nor were they shown the films.

But when he came to Madras in 1991 to make Praying With Anger, he told his aunt that he was making a feature film. He was so excited that he even gave her the privilege of reading the screenplay. He shot a part of the film in her house itself. For 28 days, there was a lot of fun and excitement in the house. "I found him very excited and happy about his film," Alli recalled.

After finishing his third film, The Sixth Sense, Manoj had come to see his grandma with his Sindhi wife and daughter. His aunt urged him to tell the story. But this time his response was, "No, no. I will not tell you the story. You see the film."

A sensitive, kind and emotional person -- that is how his close ones describe Manoj. One day, when he was shooting his first film at his aunt's house, he noticed the maidservant's little daughter in a torn dress. "His eyes moistened and soon tears rolled out. That very moment, he went out and bought a new dress for the girl," said his aunt.

Photographs by Sanjay Ghosh

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