A new documentary An American in Madras by Karan Bali traces the interesting story of Ellis Roderick Dungan, an American filmmaker and photographer, who made outstanding box office hits in South India way back in the 1930s . Shoma A. Chatterji reports. IBNS | 2 years ago

Few film critics, scholars and filmmakers outside the southern states have heard of Ellis Roderick. Dungan, a filmmaker and photographer who came to India from the US and stayed back for 15 years to make some outstanding box office hits in different South Indian languages though he did not speak or understand a single word of the local language. Karan Bali, FTII graduate in film direction and co-founder of www.upperstall.com, a serious portal on Indian cinema, has painstakingly brought out the story of Dungan An American in Madras .

Ellis R. Dunagan, commonly known as Dungan Aiyya in Madras, now Chennai, was an American cinematographer, born in Ohio on May 11, 1909. An alumnus of University of Southern California's first batch of film students, Dungan came to India in 1935 on the invite of a fellow USC mate - ML Tandon to attend the premiere of Bhakt Nandanar directed by him. Tandon suggested that Dungan get his feet wet in Madras. Dungan's initial plan was to stay for around a year but he stayed on and triggered a journey that mapped the history of 15 stellar years in Dungan's life and for Tamil cinema. His first directorial work was Sathi Leelavathi (1936) produced under the banner of Manorama Films that marked the debut of MGR. He also directed MS Subbulakshmi's most celebrated film, Meera (1945) and the seminal MGR hit Manthiri Kumari (1950) among others, before returning to USA.

Dungan on sets of An American in Madras

Says Bali, "I was researching material for a luminary piece on Ellis R. Dungal for my cinema portal. I was amazed to find his great contribution to Indian cinema in general and South Indian films in particular within a short span of 15 years. I decided making an entire documentary on Dungan." It is indeed an outstanding biographical documentary and fit for the archive of Indian cinema.

But it was a difficult task. There was precious little knowledge about Dungan. Then Bali met noted Tamil film historian S. Theodore Baskaran, who led Bali to A Guide to Adventure, Dungan's autobiography co-written with Barbara Smik, published in 2001 the year Dungan died. "Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, who shares a fascination for Indian cinema history, had a copy of the book and this became a good source of information on the man," says Bali.

The film evolves into a moving celluloid statement on the creative challenges Dungan took. Bali has designed the graphics against the backdrop of what looks like ancient parchment paper to underscore the archival quality of its subject.

Working still Modern Theatres in Madras

The documentary charts Dungan's contributions to technical innovation in those fledgling years of the Tamil talkie. Among other things, the 'Dungan track' and the 'Dungan trolley' were called so for more than a decade after he left India.

"He converted the carrier of his Dodge car to a platform so that he could mount the camera on it and take moving shots! He had the script translated into English, divided into two halves, one side for the dialogue and the other for action. He would use that to break that down into shots and then shoot only after proper planning, extensive rehearsals and blocking of scenes," Bali reveals.

In Meera, regarded by Dungan as his finest film, he got a bust of its star, MS Subbulakshmi made, and he and cinematographer Jiten Banerjee did elaborate lighting tests on it to device a lighting scheme for her to look ethereal in the film with remarkable outcome.

MS Subbulakshmi in and as Meera

The documentary has rounded up scholars, historians, filmmakers, even Muthu, a make-up man who worked with Dungan when he was 14, to talk about the filmmaker. Clips from old films - Sathi Leelavati, Two Brothers, which he edited himself, Ambikapathy, Shakuntalai, Meera, also made in Hindi later, Ponmudi and Manthiri Kumari are so lucid and clear that they appear to have been shot and developed yesterday.

"He gave Indian folk traditions and rituals a western perspective and though some sections of the Tamil cinema audience were shocked, it widened the canvas of his films," says Hariharan, filmmaker and film scholar. "He tried to take away the theatricality that was a characteristic feature of old Tamil films," says Baskaran.

"He refused to be studio bound, and moved the camera as much as he could, and mixed image sizes and camera angles in direct contrast to many of the more static films of the period. One found the 'gora' or White man inside him offering a broader perspective to gender equations," says Bali.

Karan Bali

"His love scenes were intimate and he did not balk from capturing kissing scenes," says the now-old Muthu. "His women were very bold and pro-active. Unlike women in other Indian films whose destiny was decided by others, his celluloid women seized control of their own fates."

Hariharan points out the parallel dynamics between Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet and Dungan's Ambikapathy with the balcony scene showing the difference in class through spatial dynamics with the heroine standing on the balcony above depicting her higher class and the hero down below. Dungan took advantage of the similarities between the two classics.

Since his films were flush with many songs and a good musical score, he chose actors based on their singing talent and not on their acting talents. "He made love scenes seem very natural unlike the awkwardness seen in other Indian films," says Hariharan. Ambikapathy had the then-Tamil superstar M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagawathar (MKT)'s biggest hit that ran for a year,

Archivist and film historian P.K. Nair says that he was a school kid when Sakuntalai (1940) was released. "Its beauty was comparable to any Hollywood film," he remembers. Sakunthalai, thanks to casting musical greats GN Balasubramaniam and MS Subbulakshmi together, had more than 20 songs, each of them a hit. Nair reveals that the theatres in which Meera was being screened would start playing the songs at least 45 minutes before the 6.30 pm show started to pull in the crowds.

During his 15-year stay, Dungan made 11 Tamil films, one Telugu film and one Hindi (dubbed) film. The documentary clearly fleshes out the highlights of his films - brilliant music, wonderful songs, and excellent cinematography with the camera smoothly moving from close-ups to mid-shots to long-shots, based on good stories authored by eminent writers which he infused with high melodrama.

An American in Madras is enriched through a collage of film clips collected from the archive, from collectors and archivists, stills and posters from Dungan's films, interviews, and the most outstanding feature - Ellis R. Dungan himself narrating his initial problems of shooting a Tamil film in Chennai and how he overcame them.

(Posted on 09-12-2013)