Guest Blogger: Chris Moore
Chris is a grad student studying communication at UCM.
M. Night Shyamalan and Indian Representation in Hollywood
M. Night Shyamalan’s career is an interesting subject to crack. Like many of his movies, it seems to find a way to surprise most people. I don’t know if I can think of another mainstream filmmaker that can create such polar opposite reactions in people when he is brought up. He has been labeled everything from “The Next Spielberg” and “genius” all the way to “one trick pony” and “hack.” He has made a best picture nominee in The Sixth Sense while also having the credit for what some consider the worst film adaptation of all time in The Last Airbender, a movie that sends shivers down the spine of the original show’s fans.
I’ve always been interested in his career full of ups and downs. I think when he is on, he is reallyon, but when he’s off… well, he’s definitely off. I appreciate that he still takes shots at telling original stories though. I’d even argue that there would be no Dark Knight trilogy without Unbreakable, a movie that showed realistic superheroes before it was all the rage. Hell, even Tarantino called Unbreakable “one of the masterpieces of our time.”
But I’m not here today to debate Shaymalan’s work, good or bad. Rather, I think his career warrants an interesting discussion on the representation of Indians in show business. I wonder what the sociocultural challenges Indian artists face while they work towards being successful filmmakers in the American film industry.
A quick Google search quickly shows that there aren’t many top grossing movies directed by Indian filmmakers in America outside of Shyamalan. Tarsem Singh (The Cell, Mirror Mirror) has had a few wide release movies but I wouldn’t bet on him being considered a household name. Aziz Ansari has done some great work in writing and directing his show Master of None, but still, nothing on the silver screen. Why is that? Why are there so few Inidan-American filmmakers finding success in Hollywood?
During a recent interview on Netflix’s Norm Has a Show, Shyamalan spoke about how overcoming the challenges of beating those odds started early, right in his own home. Growing up in a family that contains 14 doctors, he went against the norm and decided to pursue his dream of making movies. One of the things he commonly heard was, “it’s crazy, it’s Philadelphia, you’re Indian, this is crazy!” M. Night then went on to explain further, saying, “I get it, it is crazy…culturally that’s just not what you do. Artistry is not pushed in an immigrant family household.”
Outside of in-house cultural pressures, Shyamalan also noticed other pushbacks during his rise. During a behind the scenes featurette for The Sixth Sense, M. Night talked about a specific instance when he sent in a first cut of the movie for review. One of the first notes he received was a question flat out asking “what’s with the Indians, why are there so many Indians in the movie? Will it be distracting?” Shyamalan said he was confused at first, but then it kind of gave him a chip on his shoulder. Aside from his own cameo, there was only one other scene in the entire movie that featured two Indian-American actors.
Hearing that made me wonder if Shyamalan would have been asked to change the scene or cut out the Indian actors had he not negotiated having final cut over the film. I also wonder how many times “concerns” similar to that have been discussed behind the scenes before.
Since 1999, the population of Indians in the U.S. has more than doubled while becoming the fastest growing ethnic population in the country. Has the number of Indian artists working in the film industry reflected the fast rise in the Indian population? I really don’t get the feeling that it has.
Why is there such a low representation of the Indian population in Hollywood? Is it more of a familial or cultural influence? Societal? Both? What is your take on this? I’d love to hear any thoughts, personal opinions, and any extra information on this. Feel free to comment below!
And what would a post over Shyamalan be without a little twist at the end? So, in true M. Night fashion, here is a fun, surprising factoid: he penned the live action Stuart Little adaptation, wrote and directed The Sixth Sense, and ghost-wrote She’s All That (yes, the one you are thinking of) all in the same year. Each movie happened to be their three separate studio’s biggest hits of 1999.