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No Fear

by Bill Donahue; Photo by Alison Dunlap

M. Night Shyamalan, our region’s best-known writer/director/producer of supernatural thrillers, takes bold action to make the world a better place.

Bhavna Shyamalan is seated comfortably on a mint-colored couch, a delicate hand clasped gently in that of her husband, a certain local filmmaker. They laugh and trade stories about their years together and their many shared accomplishments, look­­ing, in a word, happy.

The scene, however, doesn’t seem quite right.

After all, Bhavna’s husband is M. Night Shyamalan, a man with a knack for imagining the worst, and then bringing it convincingly to life.

He earned his fame as the writer, director and producer of Hollywood blockbusters thick with dark imagery and serpentine plot twists—The Sixth Sense, Signs and, most recently, Devil, among them. (His next announced project is a science-fiction film starring another notable Philadelphian: Will Smith, performing alongside his son Jaden.) But now, he seems surprisingly at ease, carefree and upbeat—far from the brooding auteur one might imagine.

Night may be a master of horror and our region’s most prominent contribution to the movie industry, but he’s also an extremely active philanthropist and a loving husband and father to three young daughters—ages 14, 11 and 6. And, he’s an indefatigable Philly booster: for him, summers aren’t just the season for blockbusters, they’re also a time for wandering the boardwalks and beaches of Ocean City and Wildwood.

Growing up, he says, “I didn’t have a beach of choice; it was wherever my friends had a Shore house. But Jersey to me has always been related to girls—and it culminated in me marrying the ultimate Jersey girl,” referring to Bhavna, a New Jersey native.

And although he’s known for turning greater Philadelphia into a landscape of utter terror, Night does so with the warmest of intentions. “Primarily it’s a very simple and selfish thing,” he says.

“You want a life that’s not, ‘Hey kids, I’ll see you in eight months; I’m going to be in Mozambique or on the Riviera, shooting something.’ That’s not an appropriate give and take if you have another option, which I do because I write my movies. Instead of putting ‘Exterior Riviera’ [in the screenplay], I put ‘Exterior Jim’s Steakhouse, South Philly,’ and you hear a scream and then we start the movie. That means I’m home for dinner and all of that stuff.”

How to Fish
To be fair, though, it’s more than just a selfish impulse to be home for dinner that keeps Night shooting his films locally. “As an artist you just get inspired by where you are, and this is where I grew up; you just keep hearing and seeing stories in those environments,” he says. “Plus, I’m a Philly zealot, and I’m always promoting.”

, when it comes to philanthropic efforts, it’s no surprise that Night directs his attention toward helping the disadvantaged here in this region. To date, the 10-year-old M. Night Shyamalan Foundation has awarded grants of more than $1.6 million to fund scholarships and housing in the area, as well as adoptions and critical services internationally.

“It’s personal,” Night says. “What can we do to make a difference? … Our first attempt was basically asking the question: What’s the biggest impact one can make with one’s time and one’s money? And I think as usual it isn’t so much the money as it is the human capital. You start to realize that as time goes on, but first [we simply tried to] write big checks to places we thought it could go and make an impact.”

Low-income housing was an early investment, for example, but the foundation steadily shifted its focus toward education—“the equivalent of teaching them to fish vs. giving them fish,” says Night—because he and his wife consider it the core issue that determines a society’s success.

Night believes changing that could tip the scales for this region. “I think we are one great movement away—an education movement or something—from being without a doubt the best place in the country to live,” he says. “If we weren’t one of the worst education cities but the best, just that one thing would knock us into one of the best places to live in the country.”

That’s why the Shyamalans have, for the past two years, focused on Philadelphia’s ailing public school system—working to determine optimum conditions for teaching city students as a means of keeping them on the path to higher education. The research will culminate in an upcoming forum through which they will disseminate their findings to educators, administrators and experts, to effect positive change.

“When I looked at it, I saw it as a doable proposition: helping 187,000 kids in 240 schools,” Night says. “That’s enough to fill three football stadiums, and if you can fix the problem for that group, then the entire city changes.”

Looking Outward
The Shyamalans may be relative homebodies compared to other show biz elites, but Bhavna is itching to embark on an upcoming research trip, one that will take her through parts of Central America—including some of the most depressed areas of Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua—far from the routes tramped by even the most adventurous tourists. She’ll be hiking within spewing distance of an active volcano; traveling alternately by mule and by boat to meet with natives in the remotest of regions; and visiting communities of scavenger families who survive only by “fighting with vultures” to sell scraps unearthed in nearby trash heaps.

Such trips have become familiar territory for Bhavna. As a counterpoint to Night’s work with the foundation at home, Bhavna is looking to correct social injustice and alleviate poverty abroad by investing in programs designed to improve education and quality of life. The foundation often partners with nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) to maximize its investments of time, money and human capital.

Bhavna, a psychologist who met her husband nearly 20 years ago when both were students at New York University, hopes that extending educational opportunities will open new doors for those assisted by the foundation. “When you’re educated, I think you can understand the possibilities,” she says. “When you don’t have exposure through education, then your world is very small and your worldview is very small, so you almost can’t dream further. But with education, all of a sudden you can start thinking about other things.”

Education brings freedom in other ways, Night adds: “It’s hard to control people if they’re educated. It’s hard to keep them suppressed.”

They’ve also tackled smaller-scale endeavors, like a $7,000 grant that helped significantly improve the quality of life for roughly 1,000 people tied to a farming project in the Samburu District of Kenya. The foundation partnered with a California-based NGO, The Samburu Project, to provide funding for a generator and water-well pump that would complete a drip-irrigation system. As a result, the farming community has been able to harvest more crops and multiply its income from approximately $6,000 per year to more than $50,000. The grant solved problems running much deeper than poor access to water for crop irrigation, according to Jennifer Walters-Michalec, the foundation’s program officer and sole employee. “It’s never about doing just one thing,” she says. “Access to water [there] was incredibly difficult; some of the women would spend six hours a day collecting water, and because of that they had no education and they suffered from all kinds of health problems. These are systemic problems, and we found that a small grant here had the potential to eliminate all that.”

Vetted by Life
During their travels, the Shyamalans also seek out “emergent leaders” in troubled or oppressed communities to act as extensions of themselves. One example is Usha, a young woman in Nagpur, India, whose slum of mostly uneducated residents was being terrorized by local thugs, abetted by the police. Bhavna’s father, the late Prakash Vaswani, had read about Usha’s plight four years ago in The New York Times. He left his daughter with two words: “Help her.” Bhavna couldn’t say no.

“We want to allow people to hope, even to see themselves as valuable,” says Bhavna. “My father said, ‘Help her,’ so we went to India and tried to help.”

While the Shyamalans first hoped to provide education opportunities for the children of the Nagpur slum, Usha insisted job creation was a more immediate need. The local women had to be able to work in order to pay for their children to go to school and, therefore, change their lives for the better. So the foundation worked with an Indian NGO, the National Institute of Women, Children and Youth Development, to create a three-year plan that would teach local women and some men—about 300 people in total—essential work skills as a means of self-empowerment. Finding more emergent leaders like Usha is the next phase of the Shyamalans’ plan.

“The philosophy is that they need to be pre-vetted by life a little bit,” says Night. “There are a million people out there who have these wonderful ideas and are deserving of help, but we wait for one step further, I think, for life to have thrown everything at them and yet they still succeeded. At that point we come in and say, ‘What do you need? What else do you need? How do you take this from step one to step three?’

“Hopefully,” he continues, “we’ll find dozens of these people. We feel like the vetted leaders are the ones who have the greatest impact because they’re basically an extra arm of us in those regions. They’ve lived that whole life and know the ups and downs of it.”

Considering his artistic sensibilities, it’s unsurprising that Night also looks for something else when evaluating prospective projects to fund: inspiration.

“When I hear an inspiring story, I feel motivated,” he says. “It’s more than writing a check or giving time; it’s something where you feel honored to be taught by this person of how strong the human spirit is.… Through the foundation, I get to be near and inspired by these incredible individuals around the world, and it feeds my soul and feeds me. I want to wake up and feel great about the world.”

Yet there’s an even more intimate, and not altogether unrelated, purpose that drives the Shyamalans’ work with the foundation: setting an example for their three young daughters. It appears to be working. During their summer vacations, in fact, the two eldest daughters have made formal recommendations, aided by research and PowerPoint presentations, about where the foundation should aim its funding.

“Our hope is to create an environment where our children are aware of the injustices going on in the world, so as they grow up it’s in their consciousness,” Bhavna says. “Hopefully, they will be compelled to do something about it.”

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 4 (July, 2011).
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