When it comes to making films, the West has always had a fondness towards India. The directors from Hollywood have been fascinated with this country. This might be because of our nation’s vast cultural diversity which makes us so well known. Popular film-makers like Danny Boyle, Christopher Nolan and Paul Greengrass have made films set in this mystical land. But there was one film-maker who made India his own, and made films in Indian languages. For those of you who have a wide knowledge of cinema, this ace film-maker is no stranger. And that man is Ellis Roderick Dungan.
Thanks to documentary film-maker Karan Bali, we can now watch the life of Ellis Dungan in – An American in Madras. The film traces the interesting story of Ellis Dungan, an American who made blockbuster films in South India, back in the 1930s. But Ellis Dungan wasn’t the only foreigner who made Indian films. We had Franz Osten and Paul Zils from Germany who directed under the banner of Bombay Talkies and made documentary films in India. But why was Ellis Dungan so distinct? The reason for this is because he made a remarkable number of films, including 11 in Tamil, one in Telugu and one in Hindi. Dungan a cinema enthusiast came to India in 1935, with an intention of staying for a while, to help his friend M.L. Tandon set up a film studio. He then came to Chennai for Tondon’s film opening and eventually decided to stay back and make films.
His finest, includes a biopic of saint Meera, and film titled, Sakuntalai. Both films starred carnatic legend M.S. Subbulakshmi in the lead. He also has the credit of directing ‘Puratchi Thalaivar’ M.G. Ramachandran’s first Tamil film Sathi Leelavathi. His biggest hit includesAmbikapathy, starring M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagawathar, that ran for over a year! Besides this, his movies had one of biggest stars of that period, namely: NS Krishnan, TS Balaiah, Chittor V. Nagaiah and Maduri Devi.
Dungan used his knowledge and expertise and lifted the bar for technical aspects in all his films. His technical innovations include ‘The Dungan track’ and ‘The Dungan trolley’. The film-maker refused to be bound by the four-walls of the studio and shot outdoors. he even insisted that his actors talk naturally, instead of shouting their dialogues. The women in his films were unconventional, bold and pro-active. Therefore, elevating the portrayal of women in cinema.
Shooting films wasn’t a piece of cake for the westerner. Dugan was keen on entering a temple to shoot for his film, but wasn’t allowed to, so he put his assistants on board. But the director couldn’t discipline himself for long. Once, he applied make-up and disguised himself as a Kashmiri Brahmin. But the temple priests found out about it and had the temple scrubbed later.
Dungan’s contribution to cinema was restricted during the war period. He then became the official photographer for the Madras government during the World War II. In 1950, Dungan returned to the US because his wife, Alice had enough of India. But he kept returning to India to work on Indo-American project, The Jungle (1952).
In 1994, Dungan was given a hero’s welcome. He was felicitated by the Tamil Film industry for his contribution and development to Tamil Cinema. He passed away in Wheeling, West Virginia on December 1, 2001.
Bali’s documentary gives us an insight into all his films. It includes a brilliant feature Ellis R. Dungan narrating his life in Chennai, and the problems he faced while making films.