Tributes to misfits
The theme of misfits and alienated people has haunted Shyamalan from his very first film
Arthur J Pais
By now you must have read many stories on how much the Pondicherry-born M Night Shyamalan loves the Philadelphia suburbs he grew up in, and that he has shot three movies in the area.
But how many people would know that for his very first film, Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan went to Chennai? The movie, Praying With Anger, was made in 1992 soon after he graduated from New York University. He was about 21 years old.
Shyamalan, who has played cameos in his latter movies, appearing as Dr Hill in The Sixth Sense and as a unnamed drug dealer in Unbreakable, played the lead, Dev Raman, in his first film. An American-born confused desi, Raman, reluctantly goes to India as an exchange student, at the behest of his mother.
The film was made much before ABCD became part of Indian American vocabulary. The film focused on Raman's loneliness and frustration in understanding a culture that is quite alien to him. It also showed how his own headstrong attitude caused problems for him and others he meets.
Shyamalan, wrote, produced and directed the film in about a month, using the $500,000 he had borrowed from his doctor parents, Jaya and Nelliate Shyamalan. Given the film's non-existent box-office performance, the chances are that the investment remained just that... an investment in an uncertain career --- or so it seemed then.
While most fresh graduates from film schools across the country join production units in Hollywood or a movie firm in New York, say Miramax, Shyamalan sought out to make a film in the country of his parents that he himself hardly knew. Like the character in his film.
Some of the people who knew him had wondered then if he could have ever persuaded his parents to finance the film had it not been set in Tamil Nadu --- and if it did not have the 'discovery' tag.
The film, released in 1993 and shown in a handful of American cities for a week, went unnoticed for most part, though it received a recognition of sorts at smaller film festivals.
It would not be another five years before Shyamalan's next film would surface --- and also go mostly unnoticed. And those who noticed it weren't happy with it. Gwen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly for instance slammed it, calling it 'stultifying' and an 'inert piffle'.
But Shyamalan's momentous journey had begun.
It was after seeing Praying With Anger did Miramax, the best-known promoter of independent and low budget movies in North America, blessed Shyamalan's next project, Wide Awake, with a $3 million investment.
Hollywood insiders believe that Shyamalan, who went to a Catholic school near Philadelphia, actually wanted to set Wide Awake in a Catholic school, first. But when he could not get the finance for it in 1992, he decided to go to India.
A magical story about a young boy who is determined to touch base with his recently departed grandfather, it too was about, one may say, a misfit kid.
Misfits of sorts, who are alienated from others around them, haunt Shyamalan. The Sixth Sense revolved around one such character, the boy who sees dead people. In Unbreakable, we have another strong misfit character played by Samuel L Jackson.
One could also say that Bruce Willis, who starred in the two movies of Shyamalan's movies, is also an alienated character. And oh, let us not forget the talking mouse in Stuart Little, a film Shyamalan co-wrote inspired by E B White classic of the same name. Alienation and crisis of faith are also the themes of his newest blockbuster, Signs.
Wide Awake, which underwent extensive re-shooting, bombed immediately in 1998 but by then Shyamalan had sold The Sixth Sense script. And psyched Hollywood into giving him a free hand to make the film. When Kansas Star compared him to Steven Spielberg, surely the writer had in mind the travails Spielberg had undergone in Hollywood with smaller, hardly seen films like Sugarland Express before he was signed for Jaws.
But would Shyamalan, who admires Spielberg immensely, be happy with an action-filled adventure? He tried his hand at writing a first draft of the script for the next installment in the Indiana Jones series. But Spielberg and producer George Lucas did not find it attractive.
Perhaps Shyamalan is better off with his smaller movies that try to fathom the adventures of a soul.