In M. Night Shyamalan’s 1999 breakthrough hit, The Sixth Sense, the temperature drops every time a ghost is upset. This association dates back to the director’s debut film, Praying With Anger (1992), in which a spectre haunting a home makes its presence felt through a gust of cold wind.
If this sounds unfamiliar, it’s because the film never made it to theatres. The heartfelt, coming-of-age movie saw Shyamalan play American student Dev Raman on a reluctant three-month-long visit to his home country. At the time, Shyamalan had completed a film course at New York University and come to Chennai to shoot the feature as a part of his final year project. He was 22, a year younger than his idol Steven Spielberg was when he made his directorial debut with the TV show Columbo.
The real-to-reel life parallels don’t end there. Onscreen, Raman struggled to grasp Indian cultural norms such as segregated classrooms and arranged marriages. Shyamalan’s most immediate problem was the language barrier. The director spoke little Tamil, having moved to the Penn Valley, Pennsylvania from Mahé, Pondicherry with his family when he was just six weeks old. “Nothing was very organised in Chennai. He came with expectations and found that things here were very different,” says actor Mike Muthu, who was cast as Shyamalan’s friend and “love guru” after responding to an ad he had placed in a local paper. The then 21-year-old theatre actor says he jumped at the “rare opportunity” to perform in English. He and Shyamalan quickly became friends, bonding over their shared love of Hollywood movies, particularly Dead Poets’ Society (1989).
Over the next three months, Muthu helped him with casting. “All the other actors who had applied were Tamil-speaking. I had a little theatre group called The Boardwalkers so I told him, ‘Look, I can get you better actors. Or at least those who can speak English’.” Muthu introduced Shyamalan to Sushma Ahuja, who was cast as his character’s mother. Ahuja’s then 19-year-old daughter, Richa, was cast as her reel-life daughter. “I had done a lot of professional theatre and TV, more than he had done at that time. He was just out of college, but I’d been acting since I was a child. So it was an interesting dynamic. On set, I just kept asking him questions about his background and he jokingly said that he was supposed to interview me, not the other way around,” she says.
Shyamalan had cast the role of college bully Raj Kahn by then, but was unhappy with his actor’s performance. Muthu recommended his friend, Arun Balachander for the part. Balachander remembers meeting Shyamalan at his aunt’s house in Chennai, flubbing his first audition, but nailing the second. He got the part.
Shyamalan began laying the groundwork for his film much before he flew to India. “He had planned more than we do here. We’re used to writing the script on set,” says Madhu Ambat, the film’s DoP. He wasn’t Shyamalan’s initial choice – the director considered Balu Mahendra (Sadma, Mullum Malarum) at one point. On watching Ambat’s “stunning” Vaishali (1988) and Anjali (1990), he realised he had found the man for the job. He got in touch with the National Award winner through his aunt, who was also living in Chennai.
The two exchanged letters for a year, with Shyamalan describing himself as “not an email person.” The director even sent Ambat a handwritten script, which sealed the deal. “The script was so good, I immediately accepted without even seeing him,” he says. Shooting for GV Iyer’s Bhagwat Gita in Mysore whilst in talks with Shyamalan meant that Ambat had to go to the local phone booth after the day’s shoot ended and wait in line for an hour to book a call to the US.
Armed with $750,000 of his parents’ money (they’re credited as co-producers), Shyamalan set out to make a “warm, sentimental piece about India”. The first few weeks of the 60-day shoot were rocky. The director had impressed a few of the cast with his bound script (a novelty in those days) and his meticulousness – “He was always the first guy on the set and the last guy to leave,” says Muthu. However, the crew didn’t view his age and lack of experience favourably. “They weren’t taking him seriously because he was so young. He got frustrated with the crew and the production coordinators because they kept dragging their feet. After about four weeks of shooting, he went into a rage. He just started shouting and screaming. He threw a tantrum,” says Balachander. It worked.
Shyamalan’s decision to shoot in sync sound was another novelty for a Chennai crew. Since most of the film was shot on location, one had to account for the sounds of traffic, stray cows and barking dogs. Yet it was the crew that made the most noise. They would constantly chatter during takes. “Their attitude was dubbing mein theek ho jayega. Our cinematographer was so wonderful and so patient with them,” says Ahuja. One Sunday evening the crew was shooting outdoors when sound recordist Annette Danto, who had accompanied Shyamalan from the US, began picking up a ‘dhad dhad dhad’ noise coming from a movie playing nearby. With no alternative, the crew packed up for the day.
In a 1993 New York Magazine interview, Shyamalan said a camera broke during the shoot and a camera engineer warned that everything he had shot would be blacked out. The stakes weren’t quite that high, says Ambat: Cameras routinely jammed back then. There were more grave problems with the film. Shyamalan had sent the first rushes to Prasad Labs in Hyderabad to be processed. When they returned he was horrified to find long green scratches on them. “He was upset. It was a learning experience for him. From then on, all the footage was sent to the US,” says Balachander. His anxiety over the condition of his footage extended all the way to the Chennai airport. “He was worried, he didn’t know whether the XRay would damage the film,” says Muthu.
There were other troubles too. Shyamalan got food poisoning and would pause between takes so he could throw up. “He couldn’t handle Indian food. He had brought food packed for 50 days. Danto, though, was the opposite. She could eat food sitting on the floor,” says Ambat.
The tumultuous production didn’t faze the cast, particularly Ahuja, who likens the experience to a “picnic”. “All the scenes he shot with us went off smoothly. It didn’t feel like work at all,” she says.
Among his many talents was a flair for building up a scene, says Balachander. “He was very observant of mannerisms and all of those minute details – from the sets to the props to the lighting. He had no airs at all. He was quite strict sometimes though. When he wanted things done a certain way, his personality would change. He would switch from being a friend to a strict director.”
A dinner celebrating the end of the shoot was the last time the cast remembers seeing him. Soon after, Shyamalan flew back to the US, where he had hired then 22-year-old Frank Reynolds to edit the film. Reynolds, who is now credited with work on 67 films and shorts, recently put up a post commemorating the day he was hired: December 6, 1991. “It was the same day that Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country opened. I remember going to see Star Trek VI that night on cloud 9, thinking, ‘I am a real editor now!’ Getting a job never felt so sweet again,” it reads.
Praying With Anger was screened at the Toronto Film Festival and dubbed ‘Debut Film of the Year’ by the American Film Institute. It eventually released on VHS. Most of its cast still hasn’t seen the finished product. “A very expensive home video,” is how Balachander drily describes it.
However, the film gave us glimpses of the director Shyamalan was to become. He continued to star in his films, though he restricted his roles to cameos. He also continued the practice of writing every script he directed. Ambat says the director had 27 finished scripts when they met.
Muthu, who directed The Girl (2002) and is currently shooting Gautham Menon-starrer Theeviram, credits Praying With Anger with being his film school. Ambat was offered Shyamalan’s second film Wide Awake (1998), making him the first Indian cinematographer to work on a Hollywood production. “We had a great relationship. The studio didn’t want me but he fought for me. He also got me membership in the union. They offered him (Ingmar Bergman collaborator) Sven Nykvist and he turned them down. When he told me about this later, I said he had made a big mistake,” he says, laughing. Ambat shot for eight days in the US but had to opt out of the production and return home after his father fell ill. “He wanted me for The Sixth Sense (1999) but again the studio refused. With such a big star in the lead, they didn’t want to take a chance. But he had fought for me,” he says.
(With inputs from Vishal Menon)