Manoj Night Shyamalan is a consummate performer, with an ability to harness undergrad good looks, a million watt smile, and an ability to talk nineteen to the dozen into a package of ineffable charm.
He needed all those qualities, earlier this week, when addressing the media at the Rendezvous, at Taj Mahal Palace in Colaba, Mumbai, ahead of the release of his latest film The Happening. The assembled media, over 50-strong, peppered him with questions on the order of What Hindi films have you seen? Which Hindi actor do you think can make it in Hollywood? Will you cast an Indian actor?
Night, which is how he is generally known [File this moment away as a rarity: It is not often the writer-director is lost for words, but he was visibly shaken when one journalist asked him if he was formerly known as Manoj Shyamalan Nair -- you know, the Kerala surname, the journo added helpfully] has a knack for turning the most trivial question into an excuse to think aloud. A typical example occurred when he was asked what he thought of Indian cinema.
He had, just moments ago, in response to another question, said he had only seen three Hindi films in his life. [Wife Bhavna, whom he met when both were students at New York's Tisch School of Arts, and proposed to through a fortune cookie, is the expert, he said].
"What's that guy's name, we were talking about him at lunch, Shah Rukh Khan, yeah, I think all three movies had him in them. There was this thing, he is touching her in the rain, what was the name of that movie, Kabhi something... [UTV CEO Ronnie Screwvala, co-producer of Night's upcoming film, helpfully supplied Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham]... right, that one; that was kind of cool. And I remember there was an old one, it was supposed to be very salacious at the time, wait, Shivam something? [Satyam Sivam Sundaram, supplied the ever helpful Screwvala]... right, that one, right there, that was smokin', that one. I don't remember the name of the third one -- wait, Devdas, there you go."
That sampling would seem too meagre to base an assessment of Indian cinema on, but when asked the question, Night handled it with extempore aplomb, linking Shakespeare and Subhash Ghai into one creative whole: "I think it is a very powerful art form. I am just starting to learn about it, I find it very powerful -- the very heightened vocabulary, the close ups, the loud music, it all adds up to a very powerful form. At first you giggle when you watch it, but then you get acclimated to that vocabulary, and you begin to feel the same sort of heightened emotions.
"We keep getting more and more subtle in our storytelling. I think maybe it is time for that to change. Like in Shakespeare, you know, they were making big bold moves in the plot, and big bold acting, and the people would come in and watch, a lot of people who came in and paid their pennies and who had these sad, miserable lives, they would come in and be taken away into that big, emotional world. Those stories have lasted for 500 years.
"Indian cinema has a lot of those things in it. I was telling the chairman of Fox [the Hollywood-based film company that is co-producing The Happening with UTV] the other day that we are probably getting too smart for our own good, we should probably go back to what it felt like to be swept away."
Text: Prem Panicker | Photographs: Rajesh Karkera
Also See: Shyamalan talks about The Happening