The American who shaped Tamil cinema: Ellis R. Dungan’s story

A documentary on the American film-maker Ellis R. Dungan, who made memorable films such as “Meera” and “Manthirikumari”and raised Tamil films from the level of photographed drama, brings out his passion for the medium.

Published : Dec 25, 2013 12:30 IST

Dungan directing Narasimha Bharathi and Madhuri Devi for "Ponmudi".

Dungan directing Narasimha Bharathi and Madhuri Devi for "Ponmudi".

FILM history is but one strand in the history of a society. In the context of Tamil Nadu, where politics is closely intertwined with entertainment media, this component acquires significance. The documentary film An American in Madras (2013), which was premiered at the Chennai Film Festival, records an important phase in the growth of cinema in south India. It focusses on the American film-maker Ellis Roderick Dungan (1908-2001), who was active in Madras (now Chennai) for several years and left his distinct mark on the history of Tamil cinema. 

Trained as a cameraman in Hollywood, Dungan came to India to sell cinema equipment, stayed on for 17 years, and made a number of films. While on a visit to Madras, he got an opportunity to direct Sathi Leelavathi (1936). This work brought in more contracts such as Seemandhini (1936). The film that established his reputation as a film-maker was Iru Sakodharargal (1936), which had nationalistic overtones. With this film, he began to edit his work himself in order to gain more control over the structure of the film. He directed the lead stars of the times, such as M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar in Ambikapathy (1937), a film that reflected the influence of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Dungan tried to bring in changes to the Tamil screen. He reduced the number of songs, avoided comedy plots that remained detached from the narrative, and went outdoors to shoot his films. The storytelling followed the narrative style of Hollywood. As a result, his films were distinctly more cinematic and raised Tamil films from the level of photographed drama. Unfortunately, this trend, the Hollywood style, did not last. The reason for this was the steady entry of new film-makers from drama companies and amateur theatres called sabha s. So, the Hollywood narrative style petered out and the drama company format persisted for several years. 

Even so, the influence of Dungan on the film-makers of his period can be seen. K. Ramnoth, for instance, was deeply influenced by him. Dungan also had an impact on T.R. Sundaram, the chief of Modern Theatres. Although Dungan reduced the characteristics of stage plays in his films, he retained the song and dance sequences realising how close it was to the heart of the Tamil audience. Some of the song-and-dance sequences from his films, particularly from Meera , Ponmudi and Manthirikumari, are still popular and very much alive on Youtube. The last-mentioned film has a dance sequence by the famed sisters Lalitha and Padmini.

Dungan net

Dungan brought some technical innovations to the nascent Tamil film industry of the 1930s and 1940s and infused a sense of professionalism into film-making. For instance, the device he introduced to diffuse lighting in close-up shots goes by the name “Dungan net”. (The Dungan net is still used in the studios in Chennai.) Although Dungan did not know Tamil—he hired interpreters (known as “rush directors” in cinema parlance) to help him on the sets—he filmed classics such as Sakuntalai (1940). Chitti, the well-known writer from the Manikodi group, was one of his rush directors. Musical luminaries such as G.N. Balasubramaniam, M.S. Subbulakshmi and T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai played lead roles in some of his films. His last Tamil film was Manthirikumari of Modern Theatres for which the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam supremo M. Karunanidhi, then a budding scriptwriter, wrote the dialogue. During the Second World War, Dungan was engaged to make war propaganda films. He made Returning Soldier , a short film in Tamil with T.S. Balaiya in the lead. The Government of India commissioned him to film the transfer of power proceedings in 1947 when India attained Independence. Shortly after Independence, Dungan left India. 

But he kept returning to India as a consultant or to join film crews shooting jungle-based films such as The Jungle (1952), Harry Black and The Tiger (1958) and Tarzan Goes to India (1962). The making of these films was no less exciting and not without dangers. During the shooting of The Big Hunt , for instance, Dungan found himself suddenly face to face with a rhinoceros, which fortunately did not charge. In fact, he filmed it for one of the amazing sequences of the film. 

When Karan Bali, an alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), who was deeply interested in Tamil cinema, heard about Dungan, the subject fascinated him. He recorded in his blog, “It sounded almost unbelievable—An American? Who made Tamil films in the 1930s and ’40s? Directed the great MGR [M.G. Ramachandran] in his first ever film role? This was exactly my first reaction when I first heard about Dungan maybe somewhere around 2004. Not that foreign technicians working in Indian cinema, particularly in the developing years of the Indian talkies, was something new. I knew of Franz Osten at Bombay Talkies, and his German technical team, and Paul Zils, another German and a pioneer of the documentary film in India. But to discover that an American had made 11 Tamil, 1 Telugu and 1 Hindi (partially dubbed) films down south was mind-boggling. As it is, the outsider’s journey is always far more interesting, as there are enough extra obstacles he has to cross to finally just be accepted, leave alone respected.”

With a documentary on the film-maker in mind, Karan started the basic research work that is crucial to the success of any documentary and was able to access material from the West Virginia State Archives in the United States, where Dungan had donated his records. In addition to some hitherto unpublished stills, Karan was able to get hold of some rare film footage featuring sequences of Dungan in the sets of Seemandhini , directing the legendary T.P. Rajalakshmi. The National Film Archives of India (NFAI), Pune, has preserved four of Dungan’s films —Ambikapathy , Sakuntalai , Meera (both Tamil and Hindi) and Manthirikumari . Karan could get clips from all these. The Roja Muthiah Research Library in Chennai had among its collections contemporary magazines and song books covering Dungan’s work. Dungan’s A Guide to Adventure: An Autobiography (2001), co-written by Barbara Smik, provided Karan valuable information on the man himself and also on the early years of Tamil cinema. 

After such solid groundwork, Karan collected a formidable team—R.V. Ramani, the award-winning cinematographer; Irene Malik Dhar, who had worked on the much-acclaimed film The Celluloid Man, as editor; and R. Elangovan as the audiographer. All the three being alumni of the FTII, they could read Karan’s mind as it were and could work closely as a team. Professional competence is evident in every aspect of the documentary An American in Madras (Madrasil oru American) , directed by Karan. 

Karan has pressed into service all the tools in the arsenal of a documentary film-maker—title cards, off-screen voice, music, stills, documents, film clips, interviews and actuality material. By deft use of these devices, he packs a lot in the 80-minute documentary film, thus increasing its impact. He had the clips from Dungan’s films restored before making them part of the documentary and as such they look fresh and sparkling. The film traces Dungan’s Indian connection right up to 1994, a good 43 years after he had left India, when he made a trip to India and the Tamil film industry felicitated him in Chennai for his contribution to its development.

Karan understands that the basic element of cinema is image and has a string of stunning images that capture the flavour of the period—M.S. Subbulakshmi moving in ever so gracefully singing the opening lines of the iconic song “Katrinile varum geetham” in Meera, and the mountain-top sequence where the bandit leads Amudha to kill her and the scene of Master Subbaiya riding a buffalo, both from Manthirikumari . The songs that Master Subbaiya, a teenage prodigy who died young, sang in the few films he appeared in have proved endearing. 

The interviews with Rachelle Shah, Dungan’s good friend, and Eric Thomas, his shikar (hunting) companion, have been used imaginatively, not in one stretch but in snatches placed in relevant contexts. Karan could trace Radha Viswanathan, who played little Bharath in Sakuntalai and young Meera in Meera , and we have her talking about the shooting of the film. C.M. Muthu, who worked as a touch-up boy in two of Dungan’s films, has also been put on camera. Dungan the man, his ideas, his concerns and his passion for cinema all come across well in the film. Dungan’s life outside the world of films has also been covered. There is a sequence of tiger hunting in which Dungan takes part, which has a rare footage of a tiger being shot. 

Karan’s film demonstrates the power of cinema. If one wants to use the film medium for social and political causes, the film-maker has to be adept in the language of cinema, like a soldier who has to be a master of his weapons to survive on the battlefront. An American in Madras has set the model for similar films on early film-makers. The work of M.L. Tandon, who studied film-making in the U.S. and came to Madras along with Dungan and made movies such as Manimekalai (1940, Tamil), needs to be documented. The work of T. Marconi, another Western film-maker who made at least one Tamil movie, Vimochanam (1940), needs to be studied. 

In most other countries, documentary films are screened as full shows commercially in cinema houses. In India, cinema is seen only as entertainment, and therefore, we do not get to see such movies in theatres. I watched Anand Patwardhan’s In The Name of God sitting on the sands of Edward Eliot’s beach in Chennai when a non-governmental organisation screened it there. This is one reason why documentary films, an important dimension of cinema, remain stunted in India. 

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