Karan Bali gives surprising insights into the life of Ellis R. Dungan, an American filmmaker, who brought a fresh cinematic approach to Tamil cinema

It’s a fact that’s hard to digest — that an American filmmaker, Ellis R. Dungan, who knew very little Tamil, directed M.S. Subbulakshmi in the ethereal role of Meera, in a story steeped in bhakti, that went on to become one of the most successful films of the 1940s.

A character like Ellis Dungan would surely fascinate anyone. An American who landed on a whim and a friend’s invitation in Madras, made mostly Tamil mythologicals in the 1930s and 40s. Made 11 Tamil, one Telugu and one Hindi (partially dubbed) film! Who directed M.G.R. in his first ever film role. Who introduced kissing scenes in the films he made in the 30s. Who made his films with a completely local crew, communicating largely in very little broken Tamil and sign language. Made Madras home for 15 years and transformed from the “vellaikaran” to “Dungan Aiyya”. Created a trolley to shoot, using a part of his car, which later got named the Dungan Trolley.

It was this “exotic” factor that initially aroused the interest of filmmaker Karan Bali, who was researching for a profile on Dungan for his film portal Uppertsall.com. An FTII graduate, Karan realised there was very little archival material on older Indian cinema, especially on the Internet — something that prompted him and his friends to delve into, on Upperstall.

But putting together all the links in Dungan’s life to make his documentary An American in Madras wasn’t easy. Dungan had died in 2001. All the studios and locations where he had shot did not exist anymore. There were hardly a handful of people alive who had worked or interacted with Dungan. The National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Pune, had only five of Dungan’s feature films: Ambikapathy, Sakuntalai, Meera (both Tamil and Hindi) and Manthiri Kumari.

“As I set out to find out more about Dungan, and started thinking of making a film on him, I was still guarded. But after seeing his films, and further research, it was finally about what he brought to the cinematic language of his times, breaking away from the stagey dramas that were in vogue,” says Karan, explaining how the exotic white man in Indian cinema was not the only reason for the film. Karan is also keen to point out that Dungan was not the only outsider in the Indian film industry. Tamil film historian S. Theodore Baskaran gave him a lead to Dungan’s autobiography co-written with Barbara Smik, A Guide to Adventure, which fleshed out a large part of the filmmaker’s life. His quest took Karan to the West Virginia State Archives, USA where Dungan had donated his records. There he got some extremely rare live footage of Dungan on the sets of his early films. Columbia Video films, Malaysia got him a restored film of Dungan’s. Kaan also managed to dig out an old interview Chennai Doordarshan had with Dungan and filmed the song booklets of Dungan's films!

“Dungan tried to move the camera around a lot, and loved shooting outdoors unlike his more conservative contemporaries. He introduced innovative visual elements to Tamil cinema that had not been used before — in Meera the young Meera transforms into the older one in a single shot, in Ambikapathy, there is a visual flashback of his entire life as the hero is about to be executed,” says Karan on the kind of cinematic contributions that Dungan made. Karan wanted qualified filmmakers to analyze Dungan the filmmaker. K. Hariharan, reputed filmmaker and film scholar, and Uma Vangal, who has studied Tamil cinema down the years, gave him their studied opinions.

Dungan’s perception of gender equations set him apart too, from his contemporaries. “Dungan’s women were powerful — in Ponmudi, the heroine initiates the romance, in Ambikapathy, the princess sends the love letter first, in Manthiri Kumari, the heroine kills her husband on finding out that he has wronged. He got his heroines to be intimate. He had the advantage that he was trusted by them,” observes Karan.

Some of the people whom Karan spoke to, pointed out how they had much to learn from him — though he had not formally completed his cinematography and motion picture course, he was initially projected as the “director from Hollywood”. His organised way of rehearsing scenes and blocking shots was new; Dungan’s makeup artist on two films credits Dungan with introducing Max makeup here.

Between 1941 and 1945, once USA entered World War II, Dungan worked as the official photographer for the Madras Government and made wartime newsreels, propaganda films and several documentaries for the Indian News Parade. He also was on hand to photograph some of India’s most historic moments such as the transfer of power from the British and Mahatma Gandhi's funeral, states Karan in his Upperstall article. Dungan returned to America in 1950 on his wife’s insistence. But he kept returning to India as a consultant or a member of the crew for jungle-based films like The Jungle (1952), Harry Black and the Tiger (1958) and Tarzan Goes To India (1962). Dungan came to India for the last time in 1994 when he was honoured for his contribution to the development of the Tamil film industry.

“I admire the man for what he achieved being an outsider. At the same time, you can’t extol him. But he brought technical changes and professionalism to filmmaking here,” concludes Karan.

The National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) and Vikalp Bengaluru are organising a screening of An American in Madras today at NGMA, Palace Road, at 5.30 p.m. Entry is free; seating on a first-come basis.