M. Night Shyamalan was born on August 6, 1970 in Pondicherry, India and christened Manoj Nettiyalu Shyamalan. In fact, his current name 'Night' is a literal translation of his middle name. Though Shyamalan was raised a Hindu, which has often been inferred as having influenced the supernatural or New Age themes in his work, the fact is that the director was raised in an affluent Philadelphia suburb. This does not, however, mean that Shyamalan does not follow or practice Hinduism. As he himself says, he's just "...a less pious one than his mother and father or wife." (Feder, 2003)
In fact, Shyamalan is anything but an orthodox Hindu. He does, however, admit to being very strongly influenced by Faith, which could be somewhat attributed to his having attended a Catholic school, and perhaps an innate natural interest in religion: "...he earned the highest grade in his religion class, and apparently absorbed many elements of Catholicism." Possessing Faith does not, however, equate with religion in Shyamalan's view. It simply means believing in the presence of a Higher Power and that there is a meaning and purpose to life and the Universe (Feder, 2003).
Though Shyamalan is the son of two doctors, he developed a passion for filmmaking at the early age of eight years when he was given a Super-8 camera, which allowed him to begin modeling his young career on the lines of his idol, Steven Spielberg. Thus, by the time he was seventeen, Shyamalan had already made 45 home movies. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that he studied filmmaking at the Tisch School of the Arts, New York after finishing school. He graduated in 1992 and made his first feature film, Praying With Anger, that same year. This was followed by Wide Awake in 1998; The Sixth Sense in 1999; Unbreakable in 2000; and Signs in 2002. He is currently working on his next project, The Village, which is slated for release in 2004 (MNight).
As already indicated in his biography, Shyamalan's films are heavily influenced by his own world view. This is apparent in the fact that each of his films has a strong religious theme, as evidenced by a lead character searching for or discovering the meaning to life. In his very first major film, Wide Awake, for instance, Shyamalan explored the theme of Faith through depicting a young child's journey to discovering God or the meaning of life after his beloved grandfather dies. Unable to cope with the loss, young Joshua Beal sets out on a mission to look for God to reassure himself that his grandfather is really okay. Ultimately, Joshua's quest leads him to achieving a higher level of sensitivity to the needs of people around him, which helps him develop compassion. Finally, Joshua's goodness is rewarded by the appearance of an angel who assures him that his grandfather is okay (Feder, 2003). By structuring his plot so that Joshua encounters a heavenly apparition only after he learns to understand the people around him, it is evident that Shyamalan's real purpose was to drive home the message that Faith and Spirituality are to be discovered within one self.
The search for the meaning to life and the presence of a Higher Power is a theme that repeats itself, albeit in varying forms and interpretations, in all Shyamalan's films. In The Sixth Sense, the director seems to suggest to his viewers that every human being is part of a grander design and is, therefore, here for a purpose. Thus, Cole is not a freak because he is able to see the dead but has been given a 'gift' so that he can help them achieve justice and peace. Similarly, the child psychologist, Malcolm Crowe, strives to find his own peace through helping Cole overcome his fears, in an attempt to make amends for his having failed an earlier patient. Interestingly, Malcolm's relationship with Cole is open to interpretation as to who is helping whom for they both benefit from their interactions. As Cole tells Malcolm that he thinks, he is sad because "Your eyes told me." Thus, once again, Shyamalan's message seems to be that the meaning to life can be discovered through understanding one's role in helping others.
Unbreakable, Shyamalan's third major film has the same theme delivered through a different setting of a superhero, David Dunn, who is able to sense the presence of evil and feels compelled to protect the innocent. This does not, however, make Dunn a complete human being. Like most other people, Dunn has personal problems that he has to work through before he is able to fully use the gift he has been given: "He has distanced himself from his wife and son and from the rest of the world as well.... Sometimes things seem to be getting better, others not. As Price says, 'Real life doesn't fit into little boxes we draw for it." (Harman, 2000) So, just like Joshua, Cole, and Malcolm Crowe, Dunn too has to discover the purpose to his life through a process of self-discovery.
In Signs, Shyamalan approaches his favorite theme through yet another angle of an Episcopal priest's loss of Faith after the death of his wife in a car accident and his rediscovery of it through his encounters with alien life. Besides dwelling on Faith and the meaning of life, it is apparent in the preceding discussion that Shyamalan's films share other common threads as well such as the dealing with the death of a loved one, estrangement from family, supernatural powers, and the resolution of inner conflicts: "All of these films involve decent people trying to overcome trauma in their lives. And all achieve a sort of redemption through acts of bravery, kindness, or sacrifice." (Feder, 2003)
Shyamalan is also unabashedly fond of using techniques that are usually associated with Spielberg and Hitchcock, two of his favorite directors. Indeed, the inspiration Shyamalan derives from his idols is blatantly obvious in his use of extraordinary elements, suspense, surprise endings, and his fondness for putting in his own cameo appearances. The juxtapositioning of the main theme with the extraordinary or even bizarre is, in fact, what distinguishes Shyamalan's films from the other run-of-the-mill Hollywood offerings. Therefore, the viewer has to, like Elijah says in Unbreakable, "...keep an open mind."
It is evident in the analysis of Shyamalan's films so far that the director has developed his own unique style, which leads to film audiences almost eagerly awaiting his next release. This style, as already observed, is largely distinguished by Shyamalan's films exploring the theme of discovering the self and the purpose to life in out-of-the-box settings such as a child's ability to see the dead, a superhero straight out of the comic books, or 'signs' left by aliens in a farm field.
Besides the distinctive plot structure, Shyamalan's films are also characterized by the technique of building suspense: "...young filmmaker recently hailed by Newsweek as 'the next Spielberg'.... Signs...tongue-in-cheek humor that both augments and undercuts the suspense.... Jamming divergent elements together lets Shyamalan keep us distanced...really it's all about a certain trick of film narrative." (Cooper, 2002) This technique enables Shyamalan to keep his viewers' interest alive right through the film, not only wondering what is going to happen next but trying to figure out what the film is really all about.
Of course, Shyamalan's use of dark tones and understatements also helps in building an overall aura of suspense and expecting the unexpected: "Audiences are entranced by his subtly defined characters, complex camera angles, signature devices, mounting suspense...." (Feder, 2003) Indeed, today Shyamalan's signature devices are seen as his trademarks: some sort of twist or surprise in the end; frequent use of shots of people's reflections in various objects; ordinary individuals with extraordinary abilities; the significant presence of children; a connection between the past and the present; fluttering curtains; and important scenes set in a basement (IMDB).
All in all, M. Night Shyamalan has succeeded in contributing to the world of filmmaking through introducing the concept of mixing the ordinary with the extraordinary, forcing his audiences to simultaneously question the meaning to life and ask the question, "Is there more to life than the world and form we so far know?" Of course, Shyamalan's use of the Supernatural has led to his share of criticism: "In a review of 'Signs,' Stephen Holding of the New York Times complained: 'The Sixth Sense' left me feeling manipulated by a spiritual huckster. And so does Signs." (Feder, 2003)
Such critics besides, the fact is that Shyamalan seems to have developed a huge fan following and it is apparent that his next film The Village is eagerly awaited by the same following. Moreover, the very fact that Shyamalan's films have resulted in a great deal of discussion is proof positive that his work has given the world of cinema something new to think about! As such, Shyamalan's creativity, whether praised or derided, cannot be denied. However, it must be admitted…