M. Night Shyamalan's "Praying With Anger" (at the Sunset 5) is a beautiful, accomplished work about a young man, played by Shyamalan, who reluctantly becomes an exchange student in India, the land of his parents' birth, and ends up discovering himself.
Winner of the first feature award at this year's AFI Film Fest, it is all the more impressive when we learn that Shyamalan, a New York University alumnus, was only 21 when he wrote, produced and directed the film, as well as starred in it. The best part is that no allowances need be made for its maker's youth and inexperience, for it is above all a mature film.
Many serious Indian films have been highly critical of Indian society, but almost certainly none has had the virtually unique perspective of "Praying With Anger." The India that Dev encounters, both at school and in the home where he is staying, is incredibly rigid and nakedly xenophobic.
The most politely expressed questioning of an instructor's ideas is strictly taboo, and the caste system and the traditional subservience of women remain in force to an extent that can only seem cruelly absurd to an American. The college tolerates hazing practices on the part of upperclassmen that are not merely stupid and humiliating but even life-threatening. Sunjay (Mike Muthu), the levelheaded son of the couple with whom Dev is staying, explains that "pride, which is India's greatest attribute, is also its greatest weakness."
Were it not for Sunjay, Dev would early on have thrown in the towel and gone home, but with his new friend's encouragement he decides to dig in and make the best of his three-month stay. Dev has figured out that what both the close-minded bullies and academics crave is respect--and that he's not about to leave until he earns some himself. Ever so gradually Dev, who knows virtually nothing of his ancestral culture, learns to look beyond his immediate difficulties to reach out for what the eternal, mystical India has to give in its religion and philosophy.
Shyamalan's style is as unexpected as it is effective. "Praying With Anger" (Times-rated Family) is no gritty black-and-white effort, but a handsome, wide-screen-and-color production with a soaring, stirring score in the grand manner composed by Edmund K. Choi. The film resembles a quality Hollywood production, a sure-fire mix of fantasy and reality, which enables Dev to emerge at the climax as much a mythical hero as Clint Eastwood. Dev leaves able to say that he's found in India "something he could be proud of"--and Shyamalan has every reason to be proud of "Praying With Anger."
'Praying With Anger'
M. Night Shyamalan: Dev Raman
Mike Muthu: Sunjay Mohan
Capt. K, Subramanian: Principal Balaji
Arun Balachandran: Raj Kahn
A Northern Arts Entertainment/UnaPix Entertainment/Cinevista release of a Crescent Moon Pictures presentation. Writer-producer-director M. Night Shyamalan. Cinematographer Madhu Ambat. Music Edmund K. Choi. Running time: 1 hour, 43 minutes.
Times-rated Family (suitable for older children).