Saturday, August 20, 2011

SHYAMALANATHON: DON'T (S)PRAY IT

 


Praying With Anger
(1992)

Just coming out what seemed like another pointless lower division undergrad course, my friend Prashant and I have a chat while we stare out of the cafe window. It was about 11:30. "Do you know why the Indian people are the most superior workers in the world?" I didn't have an answer. "Sugar canes. We eat the sugar canes and it's rich energy supplies straight into our brains. That is what makes us superior." Prashant may be a deadpan goof, but he's also an Indian ex-pat who had somehow stumbled upon this part of the country to study for the medical field with a (then) half a decade's worth of mathematics ahead of him, topped off with managing the cost of living and having to learn a new language. Sugar canes or not, my friend had arrived at our country madly and admirably driven.

What drives a person, particularly an immigrant, to thier hopes and dreams? The source of that drive is at the center of M. Night Shyamalan's first feature, Praying With Anger. Released in 1992, it was produced while Shyamalan was still a student at NYU. Shot with promising precision, it explores the symmetry between an immigrant father and an native son, while simultaneously shaking and baking it into some sort of spiritual context.

The premise behind Praying With Anger is that a father emigrates from a rural Indian village into the United States and becomes a successful stock broker. The son is born into American suburbia, and grows to be rebellious of both his parents and peers. The film only allows us to witness the son's point of view. Following the death of his father, Dev (played by the director) is persuaded by his mother to take a trip to India as a foreign exchange student. He's soon exposed to the elements: his awkward, yet humble hosts, incessant questions about Michael Jackson, the inevitable "you're not in America anymore!" confrontations, college life, women, and his classmate and tour guide, Sanjay. Upon query, Dev insists that he has no personal motive for going to India. Looking for answers, Sanjay takes him into a temple. "Why do people pray?", Dev asks him. "People pray because they're confused." Yet after a moment of small talk, the Swami sets him straight, and gets to the bottom line of Dev's quest: Daddy issues.

Dev's culture shock dominates most of the film with it's hefty subplot sampler of much of India's social mores:
  • The hosts he lives with conflict over their daughter dating a man outside of her social class.
  • Dev's attraction to a particular woman goes to a rough start (he can't tap women on the shoulder).
  • The college professors are complete jerks, and do not tolerate any interaction between themselves and the students.
  • College bullies (believe it)
  • Arranged Marriages.
  • Near expulsion from the College Principal.
  • Getting robbed at knifepoint. 
Doesn't India fucking suck? Sanjay almost convinces him to leave, but Dev's got a new motive. Perhaps all of this has some sort of underlying purpose. Perhaps his spirit longs to visit his father's childhood home.

It's a four hour bus trip, but when they get there, they're greeted by his father's old friend, who has since assumed the father's home upon his leave to America. This is ground zero for his father's motivations. Dev becomes engrossed and contemplative. "You were always scared that you wouldn't reach your potential. Is that why you were angry with me, because I wasn't angry with myself?". He's figuring it all out. A transcendent moment, for sure. But wait! Night falls, and just before he turns out the lights on his way to sleep, DADDY'S SILHOUETTE APPEARS AND REACHES HIS ARMS OUT AND ASSIMILATES WITH HIM. Or at least that's what it's supposed to look like. It looks like... something else, but I'll let you decide.

Later on, the woman he's been trying to hit up actually musters up the courage to talk to him. Dev tries to impress her by saying that he's an English Major, and that all of this will make a fine book someday. "It's going to be about this guy, who comes to India, and meets this woman. and he has a lot of feelings for her." She responds, "I'm engaged." Ouch. "This is all so confusing", she says. Meanwhile, the college bully gets expelled, becomes drunk, runs over a kid, and the entire neighborhood forms an unruly mob of pitchforks. But it was Dev who stood up against the mob and spared his life. "I was confused," Dev says, as he's back at the Swami's temple again, and now considers the totality of all of his experiences. "I must be an Indian", he says. Dev now feels morally and spiritually alligned with his father, leaving his adopted India for America. Which is great, now that the semester's over.

While far from perfect, watching Praying With Anger should be revelatory for those that acknowledge his sense of precision. Shyamalan's technical ability to not call too much attention to itself brings the film's biggest strengths. Early on, there are some well executed moments of awkward comedy, and serene moments of subtlety later in the picture. He also employs clever uses of transitions and many other visual motifs that punctuate a scene's tone. The photography is beautiful, with moment after moment of dramatic lighting and framing, and the actors' blocking plays around with it as much as it can without feeling forced. However, the film never strays from it's "Indian" color scheme (brown/orange/gold) which does give an exotic flavor, yet comes out as simultaneously blatant and pretty. The musical score is probably the loudest element in the picture, and almost steps too far at times with it's sap.

The most questionable part of Praying For Anger is that it's ostensibly about ethnic and spiritual identity, yet it's mostly paternal at it's core. Dev tells you that he has transcended spiritually into being a true Indian while at the same time empathizing with his father. The problem is that the film attempts to substantiate both with struggles that, to me, amount to a bad Indian field trip. We are supposed to believe that's what it takes to become Indian. A successful stock broker, sure. I must admit, this is kind of hard to argue, especially when the ghost of your dead dad pays you a friggin' visit. This only works in the most vague, romantic ways. I mean, it's called "Praying With Anger", so I guess that clues you in to the film's abstractions.

Dev's father was an angry person. India had made him angry, and he took his aggression into the United States, into the workplace, and unfortunately into the household. Despite their bad relationship, Dev went to India to 'find' his dead father. If Dev could endure India, he could empathize with him, and become Indian himself. He's glad that he got his ass kicked, and he believes if he wants to be even nearly as sucessful as his father was, getting his ass kicked is what he needs to succeed. To him, that's what being an Indian is all about. Take it or leave it. Now, how do sugar canes factor into all this?

SCORE:


OUT OF FIVE

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