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February 24, 2000


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'I think he needs a movie camera'

Dr Jaya Shyamalan Dr Jaya Shyamalan came to her hometown, Madras, when her mother fell ill. Her mother, unfortunately, passed away and she extended her stay, to console her bereaved her father. As a result, she missed being with her son, Manoj Night Shyamalan, when the Oscar nominations were announced.

What follows is a proud mother's reminiscences about her world-famous son. A Rediff Exclusive!

When I woke up in the morning, I thought it was going to be just another day. Then, I went through the newspaper and there was a obscure announcement that the Star Movies channel would telecast the Oscar nominations live.

Unfortunately, on that particular day, we were not getting Star Movies on our television. If I had ever wanted to watch a live telecast, this was it! I called the cable operator and begged him to rectify the fault immediately. I actually remember pleading. "I have to have Star Movies running before six this evening."

But the repairman came home only at six. And he was still working on the problem at five minutes to seven! I was really, really was tense till the problem was rectified. Fortunately, just a few minutes before seven, the television came on. We were so relieved!!!

I knew my family was going to call me from the US. They did not know we would be watching the live telecast too, so they told me they would call every minute and let us know what was happening. About 30 people -- including his friends, lawyer, people from his office and family members -- had gathered at my son's place. Everyone was there, except me.

Just as I was feeling a little blue, the phone rang. It was my family, calling in with their first update. "Yes," I told them excitedly, "I am watching the telecast too."

We could hear them screaming as each announcement was made... I think they could hear us screaming as well (smiles). It was quite thrilling! They were very happy because they got nominations in all the categories where they felt they were strong. For example, we were sure the boy would get a nomination (child star Haley Joel Osment has been nominated for best performance by an actor in a supporting role). And, sure enough, when the announcement was made, he was on the list.

What followed next were the nominations for supporting actress. We had not got the Golden Globe nomination in this category, so we were not sure were not sure if we had a chance. But she (Toni Collette) had done a good job! And when her name topped the Oscar nominees' list, I had only one reaction, "Wow!"

The next exciting moment came when the nominations in the Best Director category were announced. As each name was announced -- the first, the second, the third, the fourth -- my heart sank a little lower... Manoj was not there! I sighed in disappointment. An "Oh, no!" had just escaped my lips when the fifth name was announced. It was Manoj! My God! I was so thrilled!

Haley Joel Osment and Bruce Willis in The Sixth Sense We were sure Manoj would get nominated for the script, and he did. But we were doubtful about Best Director. When we actually saw his face on the screen, we started jumping and screaming. At that very moment, the phone rang. I grabbed it and asked, "Could you hear us scream?" On the other end, we could hear them screaming too.

And then came the Best Film nomination. It was a very, very joyous moment for us all. It was a fun day.

Here, in Madras, all of us -- my father, my sister, me -- were mourning my mom's sudden departure. But, for those few moments, we forgot everything; we just revelled in the joy we were feeling. The nominations actually changed my father's mood; he is a little more cheerful these days. His grandson's achievement has made him happy.

It was morning there and they were having breakfast as they watched the Oscar nominations. They had ordered coffee, tea and breakfast for all the 20-30 people who were watching the nominations from Manoj's house. I missed the moment, I missed being with them then.

It was a very difficult moment for me. On the one hand, my father needed me. On the other, it was one of the most important moments in my son's life. What can I say? Too many things were happening at the same time. It was a very difficult decision for me, but I decided to come here and be with my mother when she was sick and with my father in his moment of misery. My husband is there with my son and daughter.

Anyway, I am going to be there for the Oscars. I don't know whether we can go for the function. If Manoj gets enough tickets, we will go. Either way, though, we will definitely go to Hollywood so that I can be there with him. I am so proud of him...

For a mother or a father, it is a very proud moment. See, everybody is appreciating his work, everybody is feeling so nice about it. In the US, they are feeling nice because he is an American. Here, people are happy because he is of Indian origin.

There, they look at him as an Indian American. He is American in every way, except for his looks. But he doesn't have an accent. As he was brought up there, he is like them. That way, they are comfortable with him. But when they first look at him, their reaction is different.

When you are in another country, you have to excel. The natives will be very careful with you, because you are a foreigner. You have to excel in your profession so that you are equal to or better than them. Only then will you be accepted. You have to work hard, and then still harder. You have to prove you are good. Once they realise that, there is no problem at all. They will admire you for your ability.

In the beginning, it was difficult for me too. But when I went to the US in the '60s, they needed doctors. I was an obstetrician and a gynaecologist. The training period was fine, but when it came to actual practice, I had to prove myself.

In those days, the doctors over there had a macho image. I had taken over the practice of an Italian doctor. His patients were used to a male doctor and were initially hesitant to come to me. This was the seventies. Most of my patients were white Americans, though there were a few Indians as well. Finally, though, they came to love me and I loved them.

Like I said, they have to know about you before they like you. Once they know you, they love you for your ability.

Both of us were from a different country, we had to work very hard to establish ourselves. We had a very tough life. It is not easy to raise two children and work as a doctor at the same time. And my specialty meant I had to be available for my patients round the clock.

Manoj with his sister I wasn't very keen on our children becoming doctors, but my husband was. At least, he was quite keen on Manoj becoming a doctor. Manoj was quite intelligent, he used to get very high marks. He got admission in all the universities too. Initially, my husband tried to persuade him to take up medicine, but Manoj would not budge (laughs). He knew what he wanted and he was very determined and focused about it.

As a matter of fact, he began making home movies when he was still in school. When they finish high school there, each student has to give a photograph of himself for the yearbook. And Manoj? He created a picture of himself -- in suspenders, director's cap and all that -- as Best Director. On the cover of Time magazine at that! I think he believes he will really be on the cover of Time some day.

I do not have his high school magazine here. But I have preserved it there, at home. I remember all his classmates and their moms exclaiming on seeing the picture, "Look at him! On the Time cover!" That will give you an idea of how focused he is. He has almost achieved what he wanted. Time has not put him on the cover yet! But I hope that too will happen someday...

Both my children are very creative. My daughter wanted to learn arts, but I told her to learn computers. I thought she would not be able to make a living by doing arts. Now she gets back at me and says, "You didn't allow me to go for arts, but you sent your son to learn movie-making." And I tell her, "You listened to me and said, 'Okay, Mom.' My son didn't."

Even as a small child, the moment his cousins come home for the vacation or on weekends, he would make up a story and start shooting in the backyard, under the trees, under the shrubs, etc. They would make nice, small films. All sorts of things from my house, including ketchup would be used for props and make-up.

We'd look at the films and laugh. It was very entertaining. We would encourage him a lot.

In fact, I remember this one incident clearly. Manoj must have been around eight or nine years then. He had this piggy bank in which he would collect quarters. One day, when I came back from the hospital, I saw him with a movie camera.

"Where did you get that from?" I asked him.

"I rented it," he told me.

"Who gave you the money?" I asked again.

He told me his friend's mother had paid for it and we would pay her back in the evening. But, in the evening, the movie camera was still there.

"Aren't you going to return it?" I asked him.

He said he needed someone to take him to the shop.

"Okay," I said. "I have a few minutes. I'll take you there."

I drove him to the shop. He went inside to return the camera while I waited in the car. Many minutes passed, but there was no sign of Manoj returning. Eventually, I got down from the car and went inside.

You won't believe what I saw! The merchant had a plastic trash bag from which he was taking out quarters and counting it. I couldn't control my laughter. Manoj had opened his piggy bank in which he had collected $500 in quarters! He did not want to tell me that he had given $500 as deposit there. Imagine, he had carried the trash bag there and paid the deposit!

Manoj Night Shyamalan When we came home, I told my husband, "I think he needs a movie camera." So we bought him one and, from that time, he started shooting with his own movie camera.

In the US, the kids are sort of free to decide what they want to do. But Manoj actually decided he wanted to learn film-making only when he was in his last year at high school. He had to choose between the film schools at California and New York. We were keen on New York as it was closer to our place, it was just 100 miles away. He got admission there without any problem. In fact, he had such high scores that he could have gone for medicine or engineering.

His father told him to attend a few film classes and see whether he liked the subject. Manoj was 16 then and had just started driving. My husband left him at him at my brother's place, in the suburbs of New York.

Manoj had to drive 30-40 miles to school. And one can get quite disgusted with the process. Above all, he had just started driving and the New York traffic was scary. I was very worried about him driving in the city and, in the beginning, I used to pray for him every day.

He completed the one month course, returned home and said, "I am so disgusted, Mom."

My husband very anxiously said, "Yes?"

"The traffic," Manoj continued, "was so bad." My husband was expecting him to say something like "I don't want to study film-making."

"So?" he asked again.

"The school was okay. I know much more than what they teach. But I am still going."

My husband didn't know what to say!

Manoj finished the four year course in three years itself! He always wants to finish everything fast. But he was not getting a break anywhere. We were getting worried.

Manoj used to write a lot of stories even when in school. If you go to his room, you can see all his writings, even the ones written when he was 13, kept neatly. He is a very disciplined, meticulously organised and focused person.

His room used to be extremely neat and clean and if at all he wanted to throw something, he would come and do it in my room! "I need an outlet and I can only do that with you," he would explain. Even now, his house and room are very clean and neat.

By God's grace, both my children were nice as kids. I didn't have the problems many parents usually face. The only time I was worried was when Manoj wasn't getting any break after he finished his college. He approached many people but, somehow, nothing clicked. It worried me a lot.

When something went wrong, he would be a bit down. But he would spring back in a day. Then he would say, "It's okay. I will do something. I will definitely find something." That went on for sometime. Then he said, "I need something to show everyone what I can do."

I was about to make a trip to India then and we suggested he do something here. He asked me to postpone the trip by a week so that he could write a script that he could shoot in India. He wanted to see whether it was feasible to make a film here.

We came here in November and he decided to shoot in January. He fixed Madhu Ambat as the cameraman and decided to come back with a sound engineer and start shooting in January.

Dr Jaya Shyamalan with her father We warned him it would be very difficult to get governmental approval and that there would be many other problems. But he was not worried, "If you want, you can get things done." To my surprise, the government did approve everything very fast. He started shooting on January 21. Which gives you an idea of how organised he is.

His first film, Praying With Anger, featured only locals as the cast. He conducted the audition for the film in this house. It was pouring on that day; the electricity had gone as well. But there were cars lined up outside the house. He did the auditioning by candlelight. We had great fun and laughed a lot. Somehow, everything fell into place and he shot the film. It went on to win American film awards. But it did not screen in too many theatres, nor was it promoted well.

Even after Praying With Anger, he did not get a break because his debut film had an all-Indian cast. He made his second film -- a low-budget family movie. I thought it was a beautiful film, but this one too was not promoted well.

So he wrote another script. It was accepted by Fox, but they didn't want him to direct the film. Eventually, that movie was never made. He was very disappointed with the clause in his contract which said he could not direct his story. After that incident, he was very careful about contracts. He did not like others working on his script.

But The Sixth Sense got sold in three hours or six hours. He called me from the studio and shouted, "Mom!" I thought he wanted to tell me he had reached there safely. But he said, "It got sold." This time he made sure he himself would direct the movie.

When he started shooting, I was here in Madras. I did a pooja for his success. I am a very religious person. Though my son is very talented and hard-working, I feel it is because of God's grace and the blessings of his well-wishers that he is successful today.

Even though they are brought up there, my children are very religious. Even my grandkids believe in poojas and rituals. The one thing that I, as an Indian, can give them is our culture and our beliefs. I even make my grandkids sit down and pray and say "Om."

I am a very family-oriented person. My kids are my life. It was very hard when I was practising as a doctor. Even if I had only two hours between deliveries, I used to drive home to be with them. I love my kids and will do anything for them. They know they will get anything they want from me as long as it is not morally wrong.

We somehow felt The Sixth Sense would do well, but never thought anything like this would happen. The way this movie has been appreciated came as a big surprise to all of us. Manoj, too, had faced disappointments before, so he played it down. Occasionally, we would discuss how much the film would make... He used to say, "If it hits 100, it is big. And if it hits 200, it is great. But don't expect 200, Mom!" He was talking about the film making $200 million.

Do you know, the movie was released on August 6, on the day of his 29th birthday. Of course, they didn't know then that it was his birthday. The figure six is good for him -- August 6, The Sixth Sense, it's made over $ 600 million and now six Oscar nominations.

Manoj, his wife and parents But we honestly did not think it would become such a sensation. We had attended the premiere and, the day it was released, my husband and I went to see it in the theatre with the audience. But we didn't get tickets. The film was sold out. It was a good sign, we were actually happy not to have got the tickets.

So we booked in advance for the next show. It was good that we did so because, by the time we reached the theatre, the film was sold out again. Not bad, we thought. We sat with the audience and saw their reaction. Manoj had gone to another theatre to gauge the audience's reaction.

The tickets were sold out on the second day as well. And on the third day too. Then, we started getting calls. We knew The Sixth Sense was going to make it big, but we had no idea how big it was going to be...

As an Indian too, I am so proud of him. He is clearing the way for the other Indians. The Indian kids there look up to him, even though they do not know him personally. It is like, "If he did it, we can also do it."

Manoj has a tough job ahead of him now -- he has to meet everyone's high expectations of him. But I am pretty sure that he will make a good film next; he is very creative and hardworking. It is okay if he doesn't win the Oscar this time. He is going to get it one day. I know that for sure.

As a matter of fact, when my husband turned 60 three years ago, we were remarried as per the Tamil custom. It was a big function. Manoj hired a theatre and screened Wide Awake specially for us. Our return gift to him was an Oscar statue. My husband got the words, 'From Dad and Mom,' inscribed on it. See, we told him, you have received your first Oscar from your parents. He has his first Oscar statue in his office now.

As told to Shobha Warrier. Dr Jaya Shyamalan's photographs: Sanjay Ghosh

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Sixth still no 1

The Oscars

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