“The Answer You’re Looking for is Keep Looking”: A Portrait of M. Night Shyamalan, a Global Philadelphian

Jackson Cruit, for GPA -- He started life as a child of doctors, migrating at a young age from Pondicherry, India to mainline Philadelphia. Later he would become one of the highest-paid screenwriters in the world. No matter your opinion of his films, M. Night Shyamalan epitomizes the American success story. But this isn't necessarily what occupies him.

An outsider would infer that he conquered many uncertainties as an adolescent in a new country to eventually cultivate an adulthood of global fame writing and directing films such as The Sixth Sense, Signs, and the June 2013 release, After Earth, starring Will Smith.

Recently interviewed before a full audience at the Kimmel Center’s Perelman Theater by the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Carrie Rickey, one of American film criticism’s authoritative voices, Shyamalan painted himself as an individual deeply and unabashedly curious about some of life’s daunting questions.

Photo: Carrie Rickey interviews Shyamalan at the Perelman Theater

When Rickey asked about the “primal journeys” of his protagonists, who often lose and regain self and spiritual awakening, M. Night gave an answer unique to him; he revealed that each of his characters’ journeys reflect a “personal diary” of his feelings during specific times of his life. The protagonists’ struggles with religion and the meaning of existence are more or less Shyamalan’s own, and remain unresolved domains for him.

Raised in a Hindu household, but educated in a Catholic institution for ten years, M. Night’s world was full of conflicting ideas from a young age. Perhaps the grey areas of his worldview  were what led him to have a self-described “religious experience” after seeing George Lucas’s Star Wars for the first time. From there, a young M. Night went on to steal his father’s 8mm camera--and the rest is history. Yet despite his accomplishments, the element of constantly questioning his surroundings has stuck with Shyamalan throughout his artistic career.

M. Night attributes the success of his movies to this essence of questioning. His “theory of incompleteness” as he put it, leaves each viewer to fill in the unsolved blanks with their own ideas, projecting personal uncertainties and phobias in the process. When Rickey asked about his global fan base, Shyamalan described that the unresolved narratives are what have caused his films to be received so well internationally.

Because his films explore so many different realms of humanity, people of various cultures tend to relate to them in specific ways depending on geography. For instance, Shyamalan claimed that people in Germany are fixated on his films’ relationships to philosophy. In Italy he has found that the majority of his fans’ interests are based in the exploration of religion. 

M. Night has not quite found the answers he has long sought, as his interview with Rickey revealed. In reality, he is someone unafraid to live a life, according to him, “full of uncertainty.” He acknowledges how little he actually knows and uses this realization to create stories that explore timeless questions of human existence. Shyamalan’s movies don’t offer resolution to these mysteries, but aid the viewer’s confrontation of them.

Credit: Photos by Christian Sarkis Graham for GPA