Lady In The Waterloo?

Many moons back, the Society For India (SFI) at Cornell held a screening and QA for a thesis film from a fresh out of school NYU filmmaker. Only about ten folks showed up. The treasurer and president had a heated discussion afterwards about whether precious funds should be spent on events with such poor attendance or whether such monies were better utilized on organizing meat market .. ahem .. social gatherings on campus. The filmmaker himself was quite a nice, approachable guy and was clearly happy to receive his $500 honorarium. The treasurer remembers writing out the cheque himself. As well he should. M. Night Shymalan has yet to make that film, his first, Praying With Anger available on video but it's safe to say he no longer has to trudge up to college towns in the dead of winter and cadge speaking engagements for a living.

Following The Sixth Sense in 1999, it was impossible to meet a desi who didn't have a connection with Manoj. I remember meeting the proprietor of the Manali Cafe in Ann Arbor who swore she and Manoj's mum were best buddies. Likewise for a resident doctor at the University of California San Francisco - why she'd had dinner with Manoj and his entourage just the other day! And so it went. He was the guy who had defied his parents' wish that he become a good little doctor boy and had followed his dreams to the pot of gold lying at the end of the rainbow. What desi kid could possibly quibble with that? And he'd done it on his own terms, staying back in Philly when it clearly would have been better for him to be with the movers and shakers in LA. He was living proof that an NRI filmmaker could find a massive worldwide audience without kowtowing to the nacha-gana obsessed feudal families that had hermetically sealed off Bollywood.

But somewhere, all of that began to change. Perhaps it was the fact he kept putting himself in his films instead giving chances to other struggling desi actors who could definitely use the break. Perhaps it was his insistence on promoting himself as a brand a la Hitchcock or Spielberg. Perhaps it was that American Express commercial. Maybe at some point he began believing in the myth he'd created around himself. Who knows? What I can tell you is last week, on Friday 21st, on the eve of the opening of Lady In The Water, a couple of us held a heated e-mail roundtable on all topics Water and Night.

Prem kicked it off with:

It's getting horrible reviews and the book about his rift with Disney is being deemed an unintentional laugh riot. Newsweek even suggests it's time for an intervention (I thought so too after I saw Signs). Has the next Spielberg hit the iceberg? Apparently he got his knickers all bunched up because a Disney exec didn't give the LITW script the proper respect and eventually he fled to Warner Bros. Does he expect studio heads to perform elaborate Vedic rituals to honor his supernatural offerings? Shyam-a-crazy like a mental patient or crazy like a fox? Maybe neither. I think his problem is more
mundane. In terms of creativity he hit the skids after Unbreakable. But perhaps the same self-belief and faith in his inner voice that served him so well early in his career is also making him blind to his creative decline.

But if I was a studio exec I'd let him be -- at least for now. I may cringe watching his recent efforts or, better yet, sneak out the back door at the private screening, but his movies are a great business bet. They are modestly budgeted compared to your average summer flick and the built-in audience for the Shyamalan brand generates solid returns. That's as good a bet as there is in Hollywood.

What do you guys think? If you go see the movie let me know your opinion.

Devdoot replied:

I read an article about him in E Weekly (an excerpt from the book) where it described a meeting between the Disney execs and Shyam at a restaurant in his beloved Philly. At the end of the meeting, he had decided to take the script elsewhere and after the execs left, he began to cry uncontrollably. Um, I ordered the book - can't wait to read it.

But you make a good point Prem. Leave him be for now -- his movies come in at budget, the built in audience spans the globe, and returns on the investment are healthy.

I pointed out that the bidgets on his previous films were as follows:

Lady In The Water (LITW): $75M
The Village, Signs, Unbreakable: all around $70 - $72M
Sixth Sense: $55M

With the possible exception of the Sixth Sense, these weren't "modest" budgets. Prem's ripose:

Certainly not Wayans brothers-cheap, but for a major summer movie still quite reasonable. The fact that average Hollywood movies cost $60-70 mil is ridiculous, but we can save that for another day.

I read somewhere his movies have grossed 2.5 billion. He has lost street cred among hollywood-types, but that town is still all about the bottom line and as long as he's bringing in the profits there will be a studio willing to let him continue drinking his own kool-aid.

He added:

He needs to stop talking to the aliens and fairies in his head, step out of the supernatural environs of his Pa. mansion and mingle with the earthlings again. But if LITW does good BO I'm afraid he will use the critical slams and Hollywood putdowns as fuel to continue down the creative deadend.

Devdoot did something funny amidst all of this back-and-forth. He actually went out and saw the movie in question.

In the spirit of this roundtable discussion, I went out and just watched LITW.

Spoiler alert: do not read any further if you will be seeing the movie.

OK, so I didn't dislike the movie as much as I expected. Surprisingly funny, although his use of the stereotypical Korean girl as a means of explaining the fairy tale was nothing but a weak way to get through the exposition.

A lot of fine actors like Bill Irwin and Jeffrey Wright are way underutilized.

The numbers came in on Sunday night and they weren't particularly encouraging. From boxofficeguru:

Suffering his worst opening since becoming an A-list director, M. Night Shyamalan saw his latest thriller Lady in the Water struggle in its debut grossing an estimated $18.2M from 3,235 theaters. The PG-13 film about a mysterious creature from the water who must return to her world averaged $5,629 per site. The opening was less than half the size of the $50.7M bow of Shyamalan's last film The Village and less than one-third of the $60.1M that his previous film Signs took in when it opened in 2002. Critics panned Lady which was promoted as being a "bedtime story" as the Oscar-nominated filmmaker earned the worst reviews of his career.

Ouch! So, what do you think we as a roundtable did next? Yes, it was true Night needed to come to grips with his roots and all of that but it was possible to take that sort of stuff way too far. In typical desi style, we were hardly short of advice. From Prem:

He's been obsessed with magic realism for so long one wonders if he can make the transition to stories rooted strictly in an earth-based reality. Hey Night, can you create characters who are NOT leading tortured lives, burdened with knowledge of other dimensions? Can your characters NOT mumble awful lines in hushed, portentous tones...for the length of the entire friggin' movie! Just for a change, ya know. Mix it up a little, dude.

Anyway, I hope he can recover from this because I'm a sucker for comebacks.

As am I. As is the USA for that matter. Actually, I have no doubt M Night will return in full force in his next production - he's too talented not to. However, it is possible to go too far in the opposite direction from magic realism i.e. urban in-yo-face-ism. Consequently, we came up with a list of films that Manoj should absolutely not be doing next. Here goes:

  • The Seventh Sense - I See Rich People: A tough, tell-it-like-it-is thriller from the mean streets of Philly where LaShawn and Devawn are carjackers with hearts of gold - they only rob SUV driving people who deserve it. Plus no one actually sees Devawn 'cause he's a ghost! But he doesn't know it yet.
  • Unbreakin' II - Electric Vindaloo: After failing for the umpteenth time to get "AtMan", a desi soul food joint, going in Center City, PA, Devi Shah hits upon a curry recipe guaranteeing wild gyrations for three hours upon consumption. Alas, AtMan is located next door to a Pottery Barn and Devi's clientele is really testing their "if you break it you own it" policy. Hilarity ensues.
  • Signs 'N' The Hood - Somebody's been scrawling wild graffiti on the SEPTA buses in Philly and those are attracting some really freaky riders.

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- July 28, 2006 12:31 AM // Diaspora , Film