Karan Bali’s An American in Madras to be premiered at the Chennai International Film Festival recalls filmmaker Ellis R. Dungan’s contribution to Indian cinema

Journalist-turned-filmmaker Karan Bali first heard of Ellis R. Dungan about a decade ago. “It sounded almost unbelievable — An American? Who made Tamil films in the 1930s and 40s? Directed the great MGR in his first-ever film role?” he recalls in his article on the making of his film An American in Madras that was screened at the L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy in Chennai on Sunday, the death anniversary of Dungan.

The more he discovered about the American filmmaker, while researching for an article in his website Upperstall.com, the more fascinated he became. Dungan had made about 11 Tamil films, one Telugu and one Hindi film based out of Madras between 1935 and 1950, though he didn’t quite know the language. Karan managed to source a rare copy of Dungan’s official autobiography A Guide to Adventure, co-written by Barbara Smik. It was around 2009 that Karan decided that he had to make a film about this outsider who brought many innovations to Tamil cinema through his films Ambikapathy (1937), Meera (1945), Ponmudi (1949), Manthiri Kumari (1950).

“Dungan refused to be studio bound, moved outdoors as often as he could, and moved the camera as much as he could, while mixing image sizes and camera angles. One also found the ‘Vellaikaran’ or white man inside him in his different understanding of gender equations, particularly in his handling of strong women characters,” observes Karan.

But it was not until early 2012 that Karan started his journey in making the film, many years after passing out of the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, with a little help from his old friend Alex Anthony. He procured footage from Dungan’s films from the National Film Archives of India, got in touch with the West Virginia State Archives for old photographs and footage, spoke to reputed film historians and academicians from the South, travelled with his cinematographer R.V. Ramani to locations and studios that Dungan had shot at, interviewed Dungan’s closest associates and even members of his crew and found the perfect emotional anchor for his film — Dungan’s return to India 43 years after he left. 

Dungan was felicitated with a lot of love and fondness. Kamal Haasan asked the legendary filmmaker for an autograph. The late M.S. Subbulakshmi, who considered Dungan her guru, sang for him. “There was not a single dry eye in the hall,” as Rochelle Shah, one of Dungan’s closest friends, recalls in Karan’s documentary.

“I just finished the film. This was the first screening. I wanted to kick off the screenings from here on his death anniversary,” Karan tells us after the screening attended by many of the interviewees in the film. He is yet to figure out a distribution plan.

The Chennai International Film Festival will officially premiere An American in Madras. Keep an eye on the schedule. Time travel to a forgotten era.