He transcended barriers with aplomb

Total involvement brought about everlasting fame... Ellis R. Dungan.

Total involvement brought about everlasting fame... Ellis R. Dungan.  

ELLIS R. DUNGAN, an Ohio-born American, became a memorable Tamil film-maker and made hits and classics in Tamil. He knew not a word of the language its culture, customs or tradition. Yet, he created many immortal movies based mostly on its classics, epics and folk myths, ``Sathi Leelavathi''(1936), ``Iru Sahotharargal''(1936),``Ambikapathi''

(1937), "Kalamegham''(1939),``Sakunthalai''(1940), ``Meera''(1945), ``Ponmudi''(1950) and ``Mantirikumari"(1950). The last-mentioned movie is a cult film and still in circulation.

He was a brilliant film technician equally at home with the movie camera, lights, editing tools, screenwriting, make-up, direction and more. To this day, he is admired for his incredible achievements and his mastery over the movie camera was one of his extraordinary assets. He studied the customs, rituals, rites, tradition, and beliefs of the period of the film he was making. As he did not know Tamil he insisted in involving himself heart and soul in the picture from the day he was engaged. He took active part in every session of the story discussion, film treatment, and the final screenplay of his films with his writers and assistants. He had every word translated into English and typed in double space paper sheets for his study.

For `` Kalamegham''(1939) — nagaswaram genius T. N. Rajaratnam Pillai was the hero — he shot a sequence never done before in South Indian cinema. Kalamegham, a famous Tamil poet had the gift of his abuses and curses coming true! In anger, he curses that a village beside the sea should be destroyed in storm and floods! To shoot this exciting sequence Dungan took shots in the village and then erected large-sized miniatures on the sands of the Bay of Bengal beyond Adyar, in Chennai. In that period, areas of today, like Besant Nagar and beyond did not exist. It was all a vast open stretch of sand and sea! Operating the camera himself he shot the storm and flood scenes there, using fans and churners and the effect was electrifying! Ellis R. Dungan was born in Barton, Ohio, U.S. on May 11, 1909. His ancestors hailed from Dungansville, a village in Ireland. Dungan joined the Department of Cinematography and Motion Picture Production of the renowned University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. At USC, Dungan made friends with two fellow students and the three formed a group. They made a student film called ``The Oval Portrait'', with some B grade but known Hollywood stars acting free.

Thus, Dungan and others came close to several Hollywood personalities. Such persons included the celebrated stars, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Alan Ladd The other two in the trio were an American, Michael Omalov, and an Indian, Manik Lal Tandon. M. L. Tandon was to play a leading role in Dungan's life. He invited Dungan to come to India and work with him. He was a successful film-maker of 1930-1940s and made hits in Tamil like ``Bhama Vijayam''(1934). Dungan joined M. L. Tandon's ``Nandanar'' (1935) — K. B. Sundarambal was the `hero'! — unit and shot many sequences which did not require Tandon's presence. Then it happened! Tandon received an offer to direct a Tamil film for the noted Coimbatore-based producer, A. N. Maruthachalam Chettiar. Tandon had directed movies for Chettiar earlier, and one of them, a mythological about Lord Krishna,``Bhama Vijayam''(1934), had raked in money. So Chettiar was eager to have Tandon direct his film. But Tandon had already signed a Hindi film named "Shame of a Nation", to be shot in Calcutta. Tandon suggested that his friend, Ellis R. Dungan, take over the assignment and make the film. Maruthachalam Chettiar was reluctant. Dungan was in his mid-twenties, and an American who knew not a word of Tamil. How on earth could such a person direct a Tamil movie?

Tandon had an answer ready. He said that Dungan was a Hollywood -trained technician and film-maker. The magic word — Hollywood — did it! Chettiar nodded his head in agreement. Dungan sailed into the project with bells on and signed his first film as director. ``Sathi Leelavathi"(1936) — a historic movie, which launched the successful careers of many, like S. S. Vasan, M. K. Radha, T. S. Balaiah, N.S. Krishnan and M. G. Ramachandran. And, of course, Ellis R. Dungan! That's how it all began.

Planning to spend a year or two in India, Dungan stayed on for 15 long years, which brought him name and fame. In the making of "Sakunthalai"(1940), with the celebrity, legend in her lifetime and cult figure, M. S. Subbulakshmi and another Carnatic musical world legend, G. N. Balasubramaniam (GNB) in lead roles, Dungan made use of his expert knowledge of cinematography and his creative genius. In a sequence, angels — white-skinned young women — sport around in a pond. They swim and then being angels, they soar out of the waters higher towards the sky dripping wet! With the limited technical facilities in Madras in 1939-1940, it was not easy to shoot such a sequence. Dungan engaged a group of fair-skinned Anglo-Indian and English women dancing at Hotel Connemara, Madras. As they complained that the water (it was a set) was too cold, Dungan ordered that hot water be filled!

He had the women wet their clothes and took shots of them jumping into the pond. He reversed the shot to get the `special effect' he wanted for the scene! Simple? At that time, it was not so! In his musical classic,`` Meera''(1945) — Tamil and Hindi, with `M.S.' as Meerabai the cult figure, Lord Krishna's devotee and a composer of devotional music, Dungan shot a scene which created history in South Indian film technique. The girl Meera (`Baby' Radha, MS's step-daughter) changes into the young woman, Meera (MS) and the transition was shown with a melodious song, ``Nandha Balaa En Manalaa..", sung by Baby Radha and M.S. When the changeover takes place there is a 45-second fast-paced background orchestra, a musical interlude, as part of the song.

An eternal proof of his brilliance as a technician... ``Sakunthala''.

An eternal proof of his brilliance as a technician... ``Sakunthala''.  

Normally such background musical interludes are also recorded along with the song in a sound studio long before the film shoot commences.

However, Dungan did not do so. He shot the scene first and the changeover sequence consisted of a number of shots of the statue of Lord Krishna... lighted candles with flames on plates... prayer offerings...Krishna's flute in the statue...and then a cut to a close-up of M.S. singing with great feeling and emotion, ``Hey! Muraleee... Mohanaa...!''

The shots were static, and also on fast trolley in close-up — there were no `zoom' lenses in 1944-1945! — Dungan edited them all himself, into a rapidly-cut, fast- paced sequence and then, S. V. Venkataraman, the sadly underrated but highly talented music composer, scored the background music in rhythm with the shots, in a recording theatre.

The impact was ecstatic and brilliant. It was the first time such technique was used in Indian cinema. Even today this sequence evokes admiration and is breath-taking! Dungan loved Madras and was very fond of `sambar-saadham', pots of coffee and ate on green banana leaves!

An excellent film-maker and a fine human being, Dungan passed away in his home town recently at the age of 93... Man is mortal but cinema is not. Dungan's movies like`` Meera'' belong to this genre... (This writer is at work on a book on Dungan and his films in India.)

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