The M. Night Shyamalan interview:
M. Night Shyamalan looks noticeably at ease on the cushy moss-green couch in the barn-turned-bungalow that doubles as his office. The space has a living room, a kitchen with a dining table, an antique-ish wooden desk, and walls lined with framed posters of his many films.
And it’s a safe bet the Oscar-nominated writer/director spends a lot of time on that couch. It’s positioned in front of sliding-glass doors that overlook a vast, grassy, markedly empty area on his Malvern property—just grass and sky as far as the eye can see. The setting is pure Shyamalan. The Happening and The Village contain this motif, as will Sundowning, his upcoming release, which was shot in the Main Line area.
Sundowning is a serious departure for Shyamalan. The independent film was cast with unknown actors and shot on a tight budget. Shyamalan is also making his first foray into TV with Wayward Pines. The 10-episode supernatural thriller airs on FOX next year and stars Matt Dillon, Juliette Lewis and Terrence Howard.
It’s not as if Shyamalan has to go indie at this point. Despite a lukewarm critical reception, 2010’s The Last Airbender grossed more than $319 million worldwide. And last year’s After Earth brought in over $243 million. Yet, the “it’s not as good as The Sixth Sense” comments continue to dog Shyamalan. In typical Philadelphia fashion, he’s at once embraced and criticized.
Shyamalan, who turns 44 this month, has been making a lot of surprising career turns of late—perhaps none more so than I Got Schooled. Part memoir, part manifesto, the book chronicles his research into possible solutions to the public education crisis afflicting so many of our cities. To many people, the book came out of nowhere—and not in a spine-tingling or suspenseful way. After all, what does an Episcopal Academy graduate know about urban education reform?
More than you’d think. For the past 13 years, he and his wife, Bhavna, have been quietly and consistently funding the work of education-focused nonprofit groups around the world through the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation.
Scenes from Bhavna Shyamalan’s humanitarian trips to Liberia (left) and Guatemala (right).
Targeting reform, Shyamalan has spent the past six years meeting with experts, checking out high-performing schools, and poring over proposed efforts. His goal is to convince voters and legislators to make policy decisions based on raw data—not opinions or anecdotes.
Meanwhile, back on the Main Line, his children attend private schools. And that brings us back to the question posed to Shyamalan at the start of this story: “Are you asking me why I care about this group of people?”
Well, yes—and the answer has a lot to do with his father. Shyamalan was an infant when his parents immigrated to America from India. They came to Philadelphia for a reason. “My dad chose Philadelphia as the beacon of America,” says Shyamalan. “When I watched the miniseries John Adams, I was weeping; I also wept reading Adams’ biography. It’s the American dream, and I’m very aware that I’m a product of that because I had the educational opportunities that my parents provided.”
Inner-city parents can’t provide the same for their children, and Shyamalan sees that as an unacceptable compromise of American values. He also understands that this inequity has been a reality for so long, and seems so overwhelming, that people are tired of hearing about it.
Shyamalan, of course, wants to change that. As for his wife, she wants to change the world.
Bhavna Shyamalan arrives at Burlap and Bean Coffee in Newtown Square on a cool spring day. Dressed for the weather, she’s wearing leggings and an oversized sweater—a typical Main Line mom outfit. But Bhavna is no trophy wife. Quiet and a bit shy, the NYU graduate has a Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Bryn Mawr College.
Scenes from Bhavna Shyamalan’s humanitarian trips to Guatemala (left) and Liberia (right).
Though she’s never sat down for an in-depth interview about her work with the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation, it’s immediately clear that she’s driven by its mission to provide educational opportunities for those in the poorest, most desperate parts of the world—especially girls.
Created in 2001, MNSF’s initial focus was offering financial support to American families that adopted orphans from India. Bhavna found an orphanage to work with, and that became the model for MNSF’s future partnerships. “We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” says Bhavna. “We just need to make it turn.”
MNSF has since implemented multi-year partnerships with organizations in India, Tanzania, Guatemala, South Sudan, Nicaragua, Kenya, Ghana and Liberia. Around here, they work with Philadel-phia’s Springboard Collaborative and other local groups.
Bhavna and MNSF executive director Jennifer Walters-Michalec vet the leaders of these nonprofits in extensive interviews. The two travel to each location, staying for several days. “We stay in tents or huts, usually without indoor plumbing and sometimes without beds,” Bhavna says. “We eat stew or soup and some bread—whatever everyone else is eating—and we bring protein bars,” Bhavna says.
Born in India, Bhavna was raised in Hong Kong before the family came to the U.S. in 1986. She attended a private high school in Hong Kong and planned to go to an American college.
Her mother had different ideas: “She thought that being too educated would hurt me—that, for women, malleability was an attribute.”
But Bhavna was fortunate to have her father as an ally. “He believed in the value of education, even for girls,” she says. “He wanted his legacy to be that he provided educational opportunities for me as well as my siblings.”
When Bhavna was accepted to NYU, her mother relented—but not without a few conditions. Bhavna worked two jobs to help pay for tuition, and she had to live at home so Mom could keep an eye on her. And she certainly wasn’t allowed to date.
Bhavna’s parents had an arranged marriage, and her mother expected Bhavna to do the same. So when she finally told her parents about a fellow student named Manoj Shyamalan, it didn’t go well.
An aspiring filmmaker? Forget it.
She married him anyway. “I said, ‘How much money he makes isn’t important to me. I have an education. I can work,” Bhavna recalls.
After they married in 1993, Bhavna put her undergraduate psychology degree to work in a clinic, counseling young victims of sexual abuse. While her husband wrote screenplays, they lived off of her paycheck. “It actually felt good—not to him, but to me,” Bhavna says.
To ease the financial burden, they moved into Night’s parents’ home in Penn Valley—specifically, his sister’s old bedroom (pink walls and all). Bhavna was accepted into the Bryn Mawr graduate program and Night kept writing.
“It was a struggle, but I didn’t mind that,” says Bhavna. “The times that I feel the most strong are when I go through a struggle and come out of it. Because then I know I can do it.”
In the late ’90s, when Night began to experience some financial success with his screenplays, the Shyamalans bought a condominium in Chesterbrook. “It was one of our favorite places to be,” Bhavna says. “We had our first two children there, and I liked all of us being close. We had a little office with a sofa bed. Late at night, I’d study, and Night would come in and sleep on the sofa bed just to be near me.”
Later, the Shyamalans upgraded to a house big enough for their growing family. There they got the call that would change their lives: The Sixth Sense screenplay had sold—and Night would direct.
The film grossed more than $600 million worldwide and snared two Oscar nominations. “But The Sixth Sense didn’t change my life,” Bhavna says. “Having children changed my life. And meeting poor, uneducated, abused children around the world has changed my life. What The Sixth Sense did was give us the ability to change the lives of those children.”
The screening room at the Shyamalan home is outfitted with maroon fabric, dark wood, chandeliers and rows of cushiony chairs.
“I’m not used to doing this and I’m kind of shy, so forgive me, says Bhavna, shielding her face with the bundle of papers she has in her hands.
At this small gathering of friends and MNSF supporters, Bhavna is introducing Katie Meyler, founder of More Than Me in Liberia. An overwhelming number of Liberian girls are forced into the sex trade because they have no job skills, no money and no education. To help change that, Meyler has set up a free school for Liberian girls. Bhavna and Walters-Michalec visited last year, and More Than Me is now one of MNSF’s many beneficiaries.
“I’m asking you to care about people you’ve never met in a country you’ve never visited,” Bhavna says. “But I have to tell you that I left my heart in Liberia.”
Those in attendance donate a large sum of money to More Than Me, and the Shyamalans match it. The money will provide scholarships for 52 Liberian girls enrolled in the school.
Bhavna was shocked when several girls involved in the More Than Me program recently reported being sexually assaulted by a teacher. The man is now being prosecuted, and Bhavna is proud of the girls for coming forward; this, she believes, is the epitome of empowerment. For the students’ sake, MNSF will continue to support More Than Me.
By all indications, Bhavna is just getting started in her new, more public role with MNSF. The goal is to generate awareness and funds for well-deserving nonprofits around the world. And she hasn’t been wrong yet about any group she’s championed. She’s got a sixth sense about these things.