An American in Madras

Shoma Chatterjee tells us about an interesting documentary made by an FTII alumnus on Ellis Roderick Dungan, an American who lived in India for 15 years and made some blockbuster films in Tamil and Telugu, in a very challenging scenario.

Few Indians, including film buffs across the country know that once upon a time, there was a full-blooded American who made blockbuster films in South India. He came for a short while but stayed on for 15 years and directed 11 successful feature films in Tamil, one in Telugu without knowing a word of either language. Karan Bali, a FTII alumnus in editing who is also co-founder and content-in-charge of,, a well-known website on Indian cinema has recently made a well-researched documentary on this gentleman and aptly named the film ‘An American in Madras’.

The man himself

Ellis Roderick Dungan was not the only man from abroad to land in India and make Indian films. Franz Osten from Germany directed films under the Bombay Talkies banner. Paul Zils, another German was a pioneer of the documentary film in India. So what makes Ellis R. Dungan as he was more popularly known, so distinct? “The very fact that he had made 11 Tamil, one Telugu and one Hindi (partially dubbed) in the South, was mind-boggling,” says Bali. Dungan directed one of the early Tamil cinema superstar M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagawathar (MKT)’s biggest hit that ran for a year, Ambikapathy (1937) and famed Carnatic vocalist M S Subbulakshmi’s most celebrated films, Sakuntalai (1940), and Meera (1945 in Tamil and ’47 in Hindi).

Karan Bali who began researching his film in 2008, scanned scholars, historians, filmmakers, even CM Muthu, a make-up man who worked with Dungan when he was 14, to talk about the filmmaker. Rare clips from the making of his films – Sathi Leelavathi, Seemanthani, Two Brothers, which he edited himself, and from Dungan’s films Ambikapathy, Sakuntalai, 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.

The reel got rolling

Dungan first came to Madras for the premiere of Bhakt Nandanar, on an invitation from an Indian student at USC, M L Tandon, who was getting offers to direct films in Tamil and Hindi, Tandon suggested Dungan that he get his feet wet in Madras. Thus his journey in Tamil filmdom with Sathi Leelavathi (1936), also the first film of well-known actor– the great MG Ramachandran (MGR), who later became the chief minister of Tamil Nadu.

Filming his first film was an eye opener for Dungan. He was an alien to the language and having to deal with local technicians and actors, and working out a system with his interpreters, he had to shoot in a studio with a tin roof that made it impossible to film when it rained. The carbon microphones in vogue then were not very sensitive, and he had to picturise songs live with actors singing and musicians playing through the shot as playback had not yet come to the South. Despite the challenges he faced, the film was completed and did well enough for Dungan to be on his way.

Noted Tamil film historian S. Theodore Baskaran, who gave Bali a lead to Dungan’s autobiography cowritten with Barbara Smik, A Guide to Adventure, published in 2001, the year Dungan died, in Mumbai, fellow filmmaker Shivendra Singh Dungarpur wangled a copy of the book. Bali who got access to it says, “A Guide to Adventure filled me up on the gaps in Dungan’s life and in particular, his Indian years. And what a life it was! He came to India when the wealthy Indian student Tandon, invited him and another student, Michael Omalev, to India as his parents were building a studio for him to make films. Dungan was still to complete his last semester at USC, when he and Omalev set sail for India. They set foot in Bombay on 25 February 1935 intending to stay for about six months to a year, only to find that Tandon’s production plans had collapsed. However, Tandon was directing a Tamil film, Bhakt Nandanar, which he was to shoot in Calcutta. So Dungan and Omalev subsequently joined Tandon in Calcutta and even did some second unit photography for the film.”

The documentary

An American in Madras, while essaying the life of an American still photographer and filmmaker evolves into a moving celluloid statement on the creative challenges this man took. Bali has designed the graphics against the backdrop of what looks like ancient parchment paper to underscore the archival quality of its subject. “He gave Indian folk traditions and rituals a Western perspective,” says Uma Vangal, a filmmaker and film scholar. “He tried to take away the theatricality that was a characteristic feature of old Tamil films,” says Theodore Baskaran. Film actor and film historian Mohan V. Raman says that the colour of his skin and the “Hollywood” tag gave him an edge in the industry helping him to overcome blocks.

The film underscores Dungan’s technical innovations. The ‘Dungan track’ and the ‘Dungan trolley’ were his inventions and these names carried over for more than a decade after he left India. He converted the carrier of his Dodge car to a platform so 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 and he would use that to break that down into shots and then shoot only after proper planning, extensive rehearsals and blocking of scenes. In Meera, regarded by Dungan himself 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. And she does look ethereal in the film!

Between 1941- 45, when USA entered World War II, Dungan worked as the official photographer for the Madras Government and made wartime newsreels, propaganda films and several documentaries for the Indian News Parade. He also was on hand to photograph some of India’s most historic moments such as the transfer of power from the British and Mahatma Gandhi’s funeral.

“I have kept the documentary, about 80 minutes long, simple and classical, with a linear structure, adds Bali. And this turns the film into an exciting journey back to the past.


Shoma A Chatterji

The writer is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author. She has authored 17 published titles and won the National Award for Best Writing on Cinema twice. She won the UNFPA-Laadli Media Award, 2010 for ‘commitment to addressing and analysing gender issues’ among many awards. She is currently Senior Research Fellow, ICSSR, Delhi researching the politics of presentation of working women in post-colonial Bengali cinema 1950 to 2003.

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