| An Indian in Hollywood |

Hindi Films in Washington |

Jinnah Film |

Night Has His Day

Night Has His Day

© India Today

Little known in his home country, this India-born director is making waves in Hollywood. His third film,
The Sixth Sense, is poised to cross the $200 million mark in the US.

By Anupama Chopra with Arthur J Pais

Manoj "Night" Shyamalan's class XII picture in his school yearbook shows him on the cover of the Time magazine with the heading: Best Director. It is a trick photograph he engineered when he graduated from the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia. At 29, Shyamalan is almost there.

The Sixth Sense, Shyamalan's third film, just broke Hollywood's Labour Day weekend record by raking in an estimated $28.5 million (Rs 122.5 crore) over four days. The earlier highest was $17.2 million by The Fugitive. Currently in 2,775 venues across the US, The Sixth Sense has grossed $175.5 million and looks set to cross the $200 million mark. The film, about the relationship between an eight-year-old boy who sees ghosts and a child psychologist, has topped the box-office charts for five straight weeks.

Shyamalan had a sixth sense that something like this might happen. Three years ago, when he was editing his second film, Wide Awake, he said to his editor Andrew Mondshein, "You know, I'm going to write a screenplay called The Sixth Sense. Bruce Willis is going to star in it." Mondshein had replied, "Yeah, sure." But Shyamalan made his premonition come true. In September 1997, Shyamalan's chilling story -- he describes it as Ordinary People meets The Exorcist -- sold to Disney for $3 million ($2.5 million for the script and $500,000 for directing). "It was absolutely historic, unprecedented," Shyamalan says, "and they asked for no rewrites." They also agreed to let him shoot the film in Philadelphia. Bruce Willis, best known for testosterone dramas like Armageddon and the Die Hard series, not only signed on but also slashed his $20 million fees so the film could come in at a more reasonable $40 million budget. "There have only been three scripts," Willis says, "that I have ever read in my career that I immediately knew I wanted to do and The Sixth Sense was one of them. It has a real balance of dark and light moments, of normal and paranormal events in these characters' lives."

Naturally, everyone is asking who's that guy? Not many people know. Despite two low-budget art-house feature films, the desi contingent in Hollywood had never heard of Shyamalan. Before The Sixth Sense shook up the box-office, film director Shekhar Kapur hadn't heard the name. Says filmmaker Deepa Mehta: "Even now, there isn't a great awareness that he's Indian."

Shyamalan is an Indian-born American. "Night" is an anglicised version of Nelliyattu, his original (Keralite) middle name, which proved to be too much of a tongue-twister in America. His cardiologist father Dr N. C. Shyamalan and gynaecologist mother Dr Jayalakshmi migrated from Pondicherry to the US when Manoj was eight weeks old. He grew up in Philadelphia, attending private Catholic schools. When he was eight years old, Shyamalan picked up his father's Bell & Howell 8-mm camera and started making movies. "He would call all the neighbourhood kids into the backyard and create stories," his mother recalls. "I used to put out sandwiches and coke." "The plots," his father says, "would have one kid playing the richest man in India. Even then he was telling ghost stories."

Shyamalan's upbringing has been a pot-pourri of Indian and Yankee. He visited India once every two years to see his relatives. He doesn't speak Malayalam but understands it. His values, his mother says, "are Indian". At 16, Shyamalan completed his 45th short film. At 17, he stood before his parents, surrounded by pictures of the other 12 doctors in the family and announced that despite getting admission to several prestigious medical schools, he wanted to be a filmmaker. "We were scared," says Jayalakshmi, "because it's a new line and we couldn't help him in any way. But he's a very focused and strong-headed boy. He's hard working and determined. I knew he would do something. But we never imagined this. He's really taken off. We feel like we're dreaming."

This dream is going to last. After Sense, Shyamalan is being aggressively courted by the major studios. He continues to live in Philadelphia, in what his aunt Dayajayaram describes as, "a very nice house with a swimming pool and tennis court" with his wife Bhavna and their three-year-old daughter Saleka. Bhavna, who is currently doing her doctorate in psychology is expecting again. For the Shyamalans, bigger things are to come.

go to top

Hindi Films Reaching Large Audience Here

Pictures From Home Light Up the Nights
Cinemas a Social Center for Expatriates

By Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 15, 1999; Page A01

The last time a movie starring Shahrukh Khan opened at Loehmann's Plaza, the line for tickets stretched across the Falls Church strip mall, hundreds of fans couldn't get seats and audiences packed the theater for weeks. So, just to be safe, Monika Khatri and her husband arrived early on a recent Saturday for the newest film featuring India's number one star.

The problem was that everyone else did, too. Sikh men wearing turbans waited in line behind Sri Lankan teenagers in Nike caps. Indian mothers in saris tried to control restless children as adolescent Afghan girls traded gossip by the box office. And behind them, Indian folk music floated out of cars searching the jammed lot for parking spaces.

"These movies bring you closer to home, because we are all so far away," said Khatri, 49, a Fairfax Station computer analyst from New Delhi, explaining why the $8-a-ticket, three-hour Hindi films are worth the trouble. "They're good entertainment, and they help you keep in touch with the culture."

Theaters that once showed movies in Spanish, Chinese and Greek
disappeared from the Washington area long ago. But two local cinemas that play Hindi films seven nights a week are thriving -- and have become lively gathering places for the region's growing community of immigrants from South Asia.

The success of Loehmann's Twin Cinemas and Laurel Town Center
Theaters -- and theaters like them in more than 30 other U.S. cities -- can be traced to remarkably devoted fans who see the Indian film world as a kitschy alternative to Hollywood. Affectionately nicknamed Bollywood, the Bombay movie industry churns out as many as 800 films a year, most of them lavish musicals featuring attractive stars and far-fetched plots.

Consider "Baadshah," the new comedy-action film in which the leading man plays a singing, dancing, sharpshooting private eye who manages to save a government minister from assassination.

Or watch "Taal," which has been playing to large crowds for weeks. It
begins as a classic star-crossed romance involving a billionaire's son and a young woman from a rural village -- but then the woman becomes an international rock star.

Indian love stories featuring traditional folk songs re-mixed with Western rhythms and elaborately choreographed dance sequences do particularly well in the United States. On the weekend it opened, "Taal" earned more per screen than any Hollywood film and ranked 20th on Variety's box office list. And that's without subtitles.

Invariably set in exotic locales full of glamorous characters in beautiful
costumes, Bollywood movies are popular in India because they offer
escapist fantasies for a vast, rural underclass. But in the United States, the films play to a completely different audience -- well-educated professionals who already have "escaped."

"Here, it's nostalgia, a link to home," said Karan Capoor, 31, a management consultant who lives in Arlington. "Whether we ever go back to India is immaterial. In a certain way, particularly for those of us who grew up in India, it's part of who we are."

Capoor said it's easier for the educated to enjoy a Bollywood film here than in India. "There's a bit of a snob factor," he said. "To be honest, if I was living in Calcutta, I wouldn't be caught dead going to 'Baadshah.' "

More people from India and Pakistan settled in the Washington area this decade than from anywhere else in Asia, and community leaders say South Asians have emerged as one of the largest ethnic groups in the region, their numbers approaching 100,000.

But immigrants from India and Pakistan aren't the only ones lining up at Loehmann's and Laurel. Visit on a Friday night, and you'll find cliques of their teenage children, who were born and raised in the United States and embrace India's pop culture as fervently as they do America's.

The crowds are also full of immigrants from other parts of the world,
including Afghanistan, Iran, the Middle East, Africa and the Caribbean,
people who grew up watching Hindi films though they may not speak the language.

"It's so much fun," said moviegoer Asha Farah, 33, of Vienna, a Somali
nurse who came here nine years ago after growing up in Saudi Arabia.
"When we were little, we would stay up all night and watch Indian movies, so it reminds you of when you were young."

Some immigrants take their U.S.-born children to the movies to reinforce cultural values. The films often emphasize respect for elders and the benefits of arranged marriages. And there are almost no sex scenes: In "Taal," when two characters shared a bottle of Coke, it amounted to heavy petting.

"The movies have a tremendous influence on my kids," said Rekha Uppal, 33, a mother of two in Potomac. "We like it because it keeps them in touch with the culture. They learn the language, and they have fun."

The theaters are also among the few public places where the South Asian community comes together. Moviegoers often make a social event of an outing and count on bumping into friends. Loehmann's has shown free presentations of international cricket matches and often helps raise money for community causes. Laurel serves samosas and tea with the popcorn and Milk Duds.

"It's a very homey atmosphere," said Hamza Javed, 21, of Centreville, a Pakistani tech worker who immigrated four years ago. "It's the only fun I have. After 90 or 100 hours of work, it's a relief to relax and see all the same people."

Hindi films first began playing in the Washington area in the late 1960s in an auditorium at Catholic University. Back then, the audience was composed almost entirely of students, the first wave of Indian immigrants to the United States after Congress relaxed immigration laws in 1965.

As the community grew, the movies moved to Silver Spring, then Arlington and then to the Takoma Theater near the District line. Radio station WHFS (99.1 FM) even started playing Indian music.

"The market wasn't big enough for weeknights, just weekends," recalled Punita Bhatt, an English professor at the University of the District of Columbia and one of those early Indian students at Catholic. "An entire generation of Indians remember Takoma as the equivalent of a community center. . . . It was nice, but it didn't last long."

In 1981, the theater closed, done in by videotapes and cable. Other local theaters that featured foreign-language films -- Spanish movies at the Ontario in Adams-Morgan and the Colony on Georgia Avenue, and Chinese movies at the American Theater in L'Enfant Plaza -- disappeared, too.

But a decade later, the Hindi theaters returned. Vijay Narula, 35, the
president of a local tech firm who runs the two theaters now, said he often rents them out for screenings of Afghani, Senegalese or Iranian films, as well as movies in Bengali, Tamil, Telugu and other Indian languages.

In part, the comeback of Hindi cinema can be attributed to its younger fans, many of whom have paid up to $100 to watch their favorite stars perform at the Patriot Center this Saturday in one of a series of Indian concerts held every year. These teens are devotees of Salman Khan as much as Leonardo diCaprio, and their embrace of Bollywood provides a window into the acculturation of a generation.

Sachin Gupta, 17, of Mitchellville, said he avoided Indian culture for years, in part because he wanted to fit in. But this summer, he met other young Indian Americans at a few parties.

"My dad used to try to explain the movies to me, but I always thought it was dumb," he said. "Now, I'm learning about it and getting all into it." He can't speak Hindi but gets his friends to translate.

Inevitably, the second generation has a different take on Indian culture. It embraces the music and dance but struggles at times with the values. Teenage boys and girls sometimes meet at the theaters secretly, to avoid the anti-dating disapproval of more traditional parents.

Anuj Mehta, 26, a software engineer, and Raakhi Chohda, 25, a personnel manager, often went on dates to Loehmann's before they got engaged.

"But we never went on weekends," Chohda said. "Our parents didn't mind, but we didn't want their friends to gossip about us."

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

go to top

Jinnah Film Palgued by Controversy

© The Times (London)
September 5 1998

A new film on the founder of Pakistan has been attacked by all sides, writes Dalya Alberge Epic that enraged three nations.

The producer of an epic film about the founder of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, described yesterday how he was almost destroyed financially and physically by hostility towards the project in Pakistan, India and Britain.

Professor Akbar Ahmed, 55, a don at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a respected Islamic scholar who has lived in Britain since 1988, has produced a film starring Christopher Lee in the title role and James Fox and Patricia Hodge as Earl and Countess Mountbatten of Burma.

Jinnah, which coincides with the 50th anniversary of his death this month and will be shown at the London Film Festival in the autumn, was made as much for "an international audience that knows little about the founder of Pakistan" as for young Pakistanis who needed to be reminded of their roots, Professor Ahmed said.

He began work on the film in the early 1990s and immediately encountered bitter confrontation on every side. He said: "The film was attacked in India as Pakistani propaganda. For them, there is something demonic about Jinnah, who broke the unity of India. It was attacked in Pakistan. They said I was a Hindu and a Zionist agent. It was described as a Hindu plot to destroy

"I was so frightened that, in the InterContinental Hotel in Karachi with Christopher Lee and the 100-strong crew, I was scared that someone would come up with a knife and stab us. It became the subject of national debate because of the importance of Jinnah. Through jealousy and malice, they were determined to destroy the film.

"In today's Pakistan, he is too great, almost untouchable, and in an indirect way I am holding up a mirror to Pakistan today, saying 'This is the man who created Pakistan and what have you become?'.

"I was attacked in Britain for being an uppity Pakistani challenging history. Mountbatten doesn't come out well in it for launching a hate campaign against Jinnah."

The movie is expected to offend many for exploring the relationship between India's first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, and Lady Mountbatten - based, said Professor Ahmed, on her diaries and letters in which she spoke of the "strange relationship - most of it spiritual - which exists between us". Mountbatten will be portrayed as aloof and arrogant.

Pakistanis have been further outraged that Christopher Lee, an actor most associated with blood-sucking Dracula and horror movies, should play one of their heroes. The producer found himself having to deny reports that Lee was to be "blacked up".

"Jinnah was very fair in his complexion. He could have got away with being an Englishman with a bit of a tan. Every Pakistani who has seen rushes of the film thinks the likeness is extraordinary," he said.

Determined to produce Pakistan's answer to Braveheart - Mel Gibson's epic about the Scottish nationalist hero William Wallace - he raised more than A33.3 million to shoot it, more than half from Pakistanis in Britain and the United States.

Jinnah (1876-1948) has been described as the most undervalued world statesman of the 20th century, a man who altered the course of history and the map of the world. Professor Ahmed set out to portray him as a charismatic Muslim statesman who averted civil war between 90 million Muslims and 255 million Hindus by securing partition. Professor Ahmed said:

"This will explore the life of this extraordinary man, one of the great figures of history: a model of a modern Muslim leader who believes, for example, in human rights, minority rights and women's rights and who was a man of total integrity, taking only one rupee a month as his pay. He was the father of the nation.

"This is film as political debate . . . on the nature of Islam and how Muslims are to see themselves in the late 20th century."

Andrew Roberts, the author of Eminent Churchillians, is among historians who believe that Jinnah's role in the partition of India has long been misrepresented and said the script for Professor Ahmed's film was historically accurate.

"Insofar as Western filmgoers know anything about Jinnah at all, it is as the glowering, sulking villain in Sir Richard Attenborough's Gandhi. The film reduced Jinnah's arguments for a separate Muslim state to a simple jealousy of the Mahatma and of Nehru. It was as insulting to Pakistanis as it was historically inaccurate."

The soundtrack is being co-written by two British composers, Nigel Clarke, Professor of Composition at the London College of Music, and Michael Csanyl-Wills, who has just graduated from the Royal Academy of Music. They have written a score that blends Eastern and Western classical sounds. Although a release date in Britain is dependent on finding a distributor, the film has been accepted for the London Film Festival.

go to top

Copyright MCMXCVIII Image-in-Asian. All rights reserved.