An American Dream Fulfilled: M. Night Shyamalan

From the time of this nation’s birth, immigrants have crossed to America’s shores in pursuit of new lives built with hard work, determination, and ingenuity. Their immense contributions are part of the very fabric of this country. To celebrate the incredible talent and diversity that immigrants have brought to our land over hundreds of years, MurthyDotCom periodically highlights the life of a notable immigrant who has left a lasting mark on history. The latest entry in our continuing series, entitled An American Dream Fulfilled, is iconic film director M. Night Shyamalan.

Born Manoj Nelliyattu Shyamalan in Mahe, Pondicherry, India, in 1970, Shyamalan immigrated to the U.S. with his physician parents when he was an infant. The family settled into the suburbs of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where Shyamalan attended a strict Catholic school and developed an interest in films after receiving an 8mm camera as a gift. While his parents initially discouraged his fascination with moviemaking, preferring that he follow in their footsteps and earn a medical degree, they eventually grew to support his artistic endeavors. Before he graduated high school, Shymalan produced almost 50 short films and honed his directorial style after his idol, Steven Spielberg. He formally studied film at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where he assumed the nickname “Night,” because his classmates could not pronounce his given name.

After graduating from film school in 1992, Shyamalan secured funding from family and friends to make his first feature length project, Praying with Anger.  The semi-autobiographical film starred Shyamalan as a U.S. immigrant who travels to his birth country of India to connect with his ancestors. While it received praise at local film festivals, it failed to attract a wider audience. Shyamalan then turned his focus to screenwriting, selling two of his scripts to major film studios. One of these scripts, Wide Awake, addressed themes of religion and the afterlife, topics that would become an ongoing theme in his films. Shyamalan lobbied for the chance to direct Wide Awake and eventually studio executives relented, but once again his film failed to make an impact at the box office. Shyamalan’s career as a screenwriter and director remained tenuous until 1999, when he rocketed to superstardom after the release of The Sixth Sense. The massively successful supernatural drama about a young boy who can commune with ghosts was written and directed by Shyamalan, and remains one of the highest grossing films of all time. It garnered two Academy Award nominations, is a mainstay on “best of” film lists, and remains firmly embedded in American pop culture more than 20 years after its release.

In the decades since filmgoers first were transfixed by The Sixth Sense, M. Night Shaymalan has continued to leave a lasting mark on cinema. Unbreakable, his 2000 follow up to The Sixth Sense, further established his reputation as a fresh talent with a distinctive style and a flair for twist endings. Since then he has written and directed a string of hit movies including Signs, The Village, The Visit, and Glass. His unique perspective, as well as his passion for his craft and willingness to persevere, have earned M. Night Shaymalan his version of the American dream.


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