Retro Review: Praying with Anger (1992).
M. Night Shyamalan directs and stars in this debut film about culture clash in India.
Shyamalan’s latest film, Glass, is out this weekend, so we decided to go back in time and catch his first film, Praying with Anger. Never given a wide release, this film primarily exists on bootlegs and You tube (hence the low quality of the images, our apologies.) As an artifact of a directors early work, it is interesting to see the blend of professional and amateur techniques on display. Praying with Anger won’t light a fire in the hearts of viewers with its social messages, but is interesting to film historians.
Praying with Anger (1992).
Dev (Shyamalan) is an American college student spending a year abroad in India. As his host family and teachers often remind him, he’s not there by choice. After his father passed away, anger issues led Dev to lash out at a bully, injuring him enough to cause a lawsuit. This resulted in Dev’s mother sending him away for a year to find himself.
Dev resents his Indian-born father, claiming he was aloof and impossible to please. Attending school near his father’s hometown in India starts to teach Dev about the cultural forces that shaped his father’s views. He also finds evidence that puts his father in a kinder light. Unfortunately, he is also on a collision course with a domineering upper-classman that threatens to awaken his violent anger.
Papa Don’t Preach.
One early stumble of the film is the reliance on explicitly stating everything going on. The film opens and ends with a voice over, which attempt to give it unearned pathos. The dialogue often restates key messages directly, and Dev has a habit of essentially narrating his inner turmoil via clunky conversations. Like many morally instructional shows, it is at pains to make sure you get the point. It lacks confidence in either the viewer or the material to stand on its own.
I can understand this was a passion project for Shyamalan: he wrote, directed, funded, and starred in the piece. The last part of that is where many of the problems come from. Shymalan’s cameos in his other films are mostly Easter eggs instead of a serious insistence on his acting chops. Here, he has to carry the whole piece as the focus, and it doesn’t come off well. Many mistakes can be attributed to a first time performer. He relies on mannerisms that don’t film well but are natural when not in front of the camera, or else he overacts with theatricality that feels forced. An early scene where Dev is nervously covering his ripped jeans in front of his elegantly dressed foster family is cringe inducing for how wooden it feels.
There’s also very little nuance to the characters. Dev is either hot or cold. He’s nearly affectless when he’s not getting ready to lash out at the perceived injustices around him. The other characters struggle to achieve any consistent characterization unless they are broad stereotypes. The baddy is always sneering, the star-crossed love interest is always forlorn, and the pompous dean is always supercilious.
A Few Sparks.
Where Praying with Anger impresses is with M. Night’s use of the camera. There are a few missteps, like unsteady tracking shots, but there is also a real feel for how a movie looks and flows from a technical perspective. He uses wide shots and match cuts well, composites his scenes effectively, and choses some unexpected and interesting angles at which to show otherwise normal events. Shooting on location also helps the film immensely as the settings and the scene arrangements do quite a bit of the story’s heavy lifting. There were a few scenes where the tension comes only from deft camera work, and it put me in mind of some the elements from The 6th Sense.
Praying with Anger winds up being a lot like its main character. It is hot and cold in terms of effectiveness. It tends to talk to the audience too often, making its point explicitly where subtlety would have been preferable. I enjoyed the camera work, and I think the film had a nice eye towards catching interesting settings. Like Dev, we get some fresh perspective from experiencing aspects of Indian culture. Unfortunately the film is also like Dev in that it never really shakes its American bias.
Too often we see Dev educating India instead of India educating Dev. It makes the film hard to recommend, even as an “after school special” about cultural sharing. Dev does the sharing, teaching Indian women to stand up to tradition, his friend to stand up to social injustice, and even Muslims and Hindus to rethink ethnic hatred. If only Dev had stayed another year, we could have had a “properly” progressive India in no time!