Praying with Anger (1992)

Twist beginning

If you were to ask a random movie fan off the street what was the first movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan, they would most likely answer The Sixth Sense. But that was, in fact, not his first movie. It wasn’t even his second movie. The Sixth Sense was Shyamalan’s third feature-length movie. His very first debuted at festivals in 1992, when Shyamalan was only 22 years old, with the coming-of-age film Praying with Anger.

As far as I can tell, the only way for most people to watch this movie is the way that I did: To find a grainy rip of a VHS on YouTube — hence the quality of the screencaps in this article. Even though I’m ultimately lukewarm on the film, I really think it deserves a proper release. As it is, it’s tough to evaluate the movie with precision, especially given its most intriguing elements are the exact things impacted by the lo-fi transfer: composition, lighting, color scheme, shadows, etc.

What is clear, even in its muddy form, is that Shyamalan is an unpolished but promising talent, moreso as a director than a writer — or an actor for that matter (though he cameos in several of his films, this is the only one he stars in). With the context that he’d eventually migrate to thrillers, the moments of the movie that stand out are scenes where he invokes some chilly intensity with framing and shadows, here in spiritual and soul-searching terms rather than supernatural, but still with intrigue. The red and orange color scheme is interspersed with moments of cold darkness.

The movie follows Dev (Shyamalan), an Indian-American teen who returns to East India following his father’s death. He initially fails to understand the culture and pushes back against it. He clashes with bullies and taskmaster teachers. He speaks out against arranged marriages and caste systems. And, in the end, he learns to embrace his own mixed heritage.

It’s intriguing to see Shyamalan be so introspective. His Indian heritage and identity has been limited to subtext (if a factor at all) for most of his career, as far as I can tell. But intriguing is not automatically good. The film’s pacing is painfully slow. The story is entirely stock beats in the culture clash subgenre, bordering on the hackneyed: “In the last 3 months, I have felt love and I have felt hate with more intensity than any time in my life. I guess I am Indian after all,” he announces towards the end of the film. Eye roll.

Even if it’s not a gem, its production backstory is deeply fascinating. Shyamalan — born in India, raised in Pennsylvania, speaking almost no Tamil — borrowed a bunch of money from his parents and family friends to fly to Chennai to shoot on location. The 22-year-old hired local cast and crew, most of whom didn’t think much of this ambitious American kid. I guess he proved them wrong.

Is It Good?

Not Very Good (3/8)

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