During the third week of January film-maker Manoj Night Shyamalan, of 'The Sixth Sense' fame, had a close Chennai connection that was twofold. 'Unbreakable,' the fourth commercial film scripted and directed by him and the immediate successor to The Sixth Sense, was running in the city. And two, both his United-States-based, medical-practitioner parents were in Chennai.
The early reviews of Unbreakable in the US, where it was released on November 22 last, betrayed some disappointment. Many of the subsequent reviews sang a different tune.
This became clear on a perusal of a large collection of quotations from reviews that Shyamalan's parents, Nelliyate C Shyamalan and Jayalakshmi, gave Chennai Online in the course of a meeting on January 18 at the Defence Colony (St Thomas Mount) home of R N Swaminathan, Night Shyamalan's maternal grandfather.
Thus, Elvis Mitchell (The New York Times) writes: "The Sixth Sense was no accident. Unbreakable shows Shyamalan's remarkable growth as a directorů.he proves to be a major talent."
Lou Lumenick (New York Post): "Dazzling. Unbreakable confirms that Shyamalan is one of the most brilliant film-makers working today."
The main purpose of the meeting with Night Shyamalan's parents, however, was to acquire some insight into the 30-year-old film-maker's approach to his craft and his success formula - if one may use such a phrase when speaking of so non-stereotyped a talent.
I did acquire a fair amount of raw material for such insight from the couple, much of it in the form of information about the social environment to which Shyamalan had been exposed during boyhood and adolescence. The account that follows is chronological, broadly speaking.
N C Shyamalan, a Malayali, and Jayalakshmi, a Tamil, were classmates in the Jawaharlal Nehru Institute of Postgraduate Medical Education and Research (JIPMER), Pondicherry, which they joined in 1956. Graduating in 1962, they got married and pursued post-graduate studies and work experience. A daughter (Veena) was born to the Shyamalans in Pondy in 1964.
In 1968 the family migrated to the US. Manoj was born two years later - in JIPMER, like Veena. Jayalakshmi had returned to Pondy for the birth. Six to eight weeks after the event she went back to the US with the baby in tow.
N C Shyamalan and Jayalakshmi acquired specialist qualifications some time after migrating to the US. Manoj's childhood home was in an affluent suburb of Philadelphia. The family as a whole, and the boy in particular, had a circle of American friends and acquaintances that was white-dominated, as was that suburb.
Every few years the Shyamalans travelled to India and spent time with their kinsfolk. Besides, there were more than 30 relations - Manoj's uncles, aunts and cousins - resident in the US itself, including five of Jayalakshmi's seven siblings and a niece of N C Shyamalan's. The 'clan' used to get together off and on.
Diwali and other Hindu festivals used to be events in the Shyamalan home, at least their devotional aspects. There were 'homams' from time to time.
Jayalakshmi used to narrate tales from Hindu mythology to little Manoj. The boy heard ghost stories from his father and, on rarer occasions, from his paternal grandmother. Shyamalan pere and mere read lots of children's books to Manoj. By and by the son picked up the reading habit. To this day he reads a lot.