(July 23, 9:15am)
There’s something uncanny about M Night Shyamalan‘s films. These thrillers don’t play loud on gory effects or over-the-top CGI but on fear. The expertly timed plotting of suspense is what makes his films a masterpiece. The notorious twists, the haunting music scores, the shock value, the high-intensity drama, and the breathtaking performances have made him one of the best Indian-American directors of all time.
It was the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker who gave supernatural thrillers a fresh lease of life with his 1999 hit film The Sixth Sense, and as they say, the rest is history.
Now the 50-year-old maverick is returning with another thriller Old. But before the big release, let’s take a look at this Global Indian’s journey in Hollywood.
1 week out from @oldthemovie opening in theaters everywhere. I often get asked, “What is success for you?” My answer: “That I feel I have approached the art form with reverence & respected my characters.” Good things happen in long run when we concentrate on things we value.
— M. Night Shyamalan ⏳ (@MNightShyamalan) July 17, 2021
A video camera that inspired him to make films
Shyamalan was born in Pondicherry to Tamil and Malayalee doctor parents but was raised in the US. He was only six weeks old when his parents immigrated to Pennsylvania, Philadephia. The only Hindu in a Roman Catholic school, Shyamalan felt like an outsider. He allegedly never made it to the good books of his teachers because he wasn’t baptized. Apparently, he was once pulled up in class for getting good marks in religion. His teacher was upset that he got grades and he wasn’t even Catholic, news reports say.
The old, “Only Hindu in Catholic School” class photo. Hail Marys at school… Ganesh stories at home. Signs, Split, The Sixth Sense etc in the movie theaters. pic.twitter.com/vi5cGLx3fJ
— M. Night Shyamalan ⏳ (@MNightShyamalan) December 30, 2020
It was these instances that made him curious about religious and spiritual beliefs. So much so that he gave himself the middle name Night after getting inspired by Native Indians and their culture. It was during this time that he was gifted a Super-8 camera, but little did he know this piece of technology would shift the course of his life. In no time, he became the producer of grainy amateur home movies that he shot in his neighborhood. Though he became popular for his thrillers in adulthood, he actually wanted to be the next Steven Spielberg.
The lukewarm beginning
At 17, he enrolled in a film course at New York University much against the wishes of his doctor parents. “Medicine was in my genetic makeup… as an Asian child, it comes as naturally as driving a car. You get good grades and you plan for a profession in medicine, without even thinking. It was always my backup plan because there was deep concern about my future,” he said in a 2000 interview with The Rolling Stones.
At 21, he wrote and directed his first film, Praying with Anger. A low-budget film about an American of Indian descent who goes to India which tanked. But he got his second chance with the 1998 film Wide Awake. In conversation with Rediff.com, he said,
“I couldn’t tell what kind of movie I was making at the time, I was having a tough time figuring out was I making an art movie, a commercial movie? I made that movie, and no one went to see it either. And I was like, two strikes, you are out.”
It was the failure of two films that made Shyamalan look deeper and do some introspection.
“I sat down and said, I am putting in enough love, enough effort, so what am I doing wrong? I looked up at my wall and I had all these [posters of] movies on my wall, The Exorcist, Raiders of the Lost Ark, famous movies I grew up loving, so I looked at them and I said to myself, let me stop pretending I’m an art filmmaker, stop pretending to be something I am not, and let me make one of these movies,” he added.
The big breakthrough
That’s when he decided to write The Sixth Sense. With no expectation, he began working on the film. During the 90s, the horror and supernatural genre didn’t get much traction and the films soon went to video. But The Sixth Sense opened to packed houses, and the thriller announced the arrival of M Night Shyamalan in Hollywood. An unconventional thriller about a boy with the ability to see dead people, The Sixth Sense turned a page in the supernatural genre with six Academy Award nominations.
The success of The Sixth Sense brought Shyamalan to the office of Warner Bros. who offered him to direct a Superman or Batman film. However, Shyamalan politely refused the offer. Interestingly, it was during his meeting with Warner Bros. that he conceived the plot of his 2001 film Unbreakable. It was his drama take on the comic book genre. Though the film received a lukewarm response, it definitely made Shyamalan a Hollywood player.
Biggies like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas approached the filmmaker for writing a sequel to Raiders of Lost Ark. But the opportunity left Shyamalan so overwhelmed that he declined it in fear of not doing justice to the sequel.
But he was ready to scare the daylights out of his audience with Signs. Yet another supernatural, this time Shyamalan had another trick up his sleeve – aliens. The film set the cash registers ringing and turned out to be one of the best films from the director’s repertoire.
By this time, Shyamalan has become quite an authority on supernatural thrillers in Hollywood. However, his 2004 film The Village received a cold reception at the box office.
The fall and rise
A spate of failures followed — moves such as Lady in the Water, The Happening, The Last Airbender and After Earth were disasters. “I felt like was I starting to lose my voice a bit,” he says. “I’m not really the best person to work in the system,” he told Rolling Stones.
He had to make changes to the way he thinks and operates.
“The basic premise was dividing your life into two columns: the things you have control over and the things you don’t. And not getting confused about the two,” Shyamalan said in a 2019 interview with Vulture.
For this next project – The Visit – Shyamalan had to take out a $5 million loan against his estate and self-fund. He flew to Los Angeles and showed a rough cut to every Hollywood studio. They all passed and he was devastated. He took a new cut to Universal, and horror doyen Jason Blum signed on as a producer. The film ended up making $98 million. His next movie Split made $280 million. Shyamalan was back.
He talked about the highs and lows of his life in his 2018 commencement speech at Drexel University.
The director is geared up for his upcoming release Old. Inspired by the Swiss graphic novel Sandcastle, the thriller follows a family on a tropical vacation who find themselves aging rapidly, almost reducing their lives into a single day.
M Night Shyamalan is one of those rare American-Indian directors who has made Hollywood their home like no one else. At a time when horror genre was relegated to video cassettes, Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense became the second-highest-grossing film of 1999. The Academy Award-nominated director’s supernatural dramas had an edge and unconventional theme that many directors of those times were missing. Like every achiever, Shyamalan too had to see humbling days when his films flopped after a heady start to his career. But with comeback movies such as The Visit and Split, Shyamalan showed that it is possible to reinvent one’s work and one’s approach to work even in the 40s. As they say, every rejection is a redirection.