Dungan master: learn about the unsung auteur of Tamil cinema

An American in Madras (2013), based on the life and work of Ellis R Dungan, is up for by-demand streaming on Netflix

Jaideep Sen Published :  28th April 2017 04:37 PM   |   Published :   |  28th April 2017 04:37 PM
Ellis R Dungan on sets

Ellis R Dungan on sets

The French illusionist Georges Mélies and the American filmmaker Ellis R Dungan aren’t easy to compare, points out Karan Bali. “They came at very different times,” he explains. “Mélies’ experiments with film  (in the early-1900s) were different from Dungan’s (1930s onwards). Melies’ in-camera tricks were magical and he is known for his trick films, whereas Dungan’s conventional story-telling greatly benefitted the technicalities and narratives of early Tamil cinema.”

If there’s anything common between the two names, it’s that they were both pioneers in their own right, notes Bali, whose biographical documentary An American in Madras (2013), based on the life and work of Ellis R Dungan, is up for by-demand streaming on Netflix.

An American in Madras

The story of Ellis R Dungan is unique, somewhat like that of Georges Méliès. Take us back to the time you first heard about Ellis R Dungan, and how you reacted when you found out about him directing MGR and MS Subbulakshmi in their earliest roles. What kind of possibilities did you imagine at the time, about your discovery? 
Actually, I wouldn’t compare Melies and Dungan. They came at very different times of filmmaking and if at all there’s anything common between them, it’s more than they were pioneers in their own right. Otherwise, Meilies’ experiments with film were rather different than Dungan’s. Melies’ innovations and in-camera tricks were magical and he is known more his trick films, whereas Dungan’s more conventional storytelling inputs greatly benefitted the technicalities and narratives of early Tamil cinema.
   I first came across Dungan around 2004 while researching for my website on India cinema, Upperstall.com. I think it was fascinating and even rather surprising (in a positive sort of way) to discover an American down South making Tamil films. Though earlier, my intention was just to write a piece on him and nothing more. I did that. But somewhere around 2008-9 as I kept being drawn back repeatedly to his story, the filmmaker in me wondered if there was a film in it somewhere. Now that the film has been made, obviously there was!

Why is it that Ellis R Dungan's story is still relatively lesser known? Why isn't he accorded the merit that's given to say, Dadasaheb Phalke? There are several groups and enthusiasts in Chennai, but few people in the country seem to know about him - in fact, there are more fans of his Indian films outside the country. 
I think if Dungan’s story isn’t that well known, it’s primarily because we give a step-motherly treatment to regional cinema, something that sadly continues even today. This, when regional cinema often does cinematic work superior to Hindi, as we are seeing, in particular, in Marathi and Tamil cinema today. Even when we talk of foreigners in early Indian cinema and their contribution, Hindi cinema with Bombay Talkies and their German crew come to most people’s minds first and not Dungan.
   That said, historians and old timers who follow Tamil cinema are pretty familiar with Ellis R Dungan and his work. And I don’t think that there are more fans of his work outside the country. Let’s just say those who are followers of classic Tamil cinema wherever they be, they have heard of and are familiar with Dungan.

Ellis R Dungan on sets, courtesy West Virginia State Archives, USA 

Dungan didn't seem intent on making epic films, in the way that Uday Shankar made Kalpana in 1948, for instance. He seemed more intent on creating a body of work. Tell us a little about that particular aspect of Dungan's work, of creating an altogether new stream of regional Indian cinema. His ideas of cinematic accomplishment were very different, in that sense.
Again, I wouldn’t mention Uday Shankar and Dungan together. To be honest, like Franz Osten at Bombay Talkies, Dungan didn’t really change the kind of stories being told. In that sense, he moved with the flow. But what he did, most importantly, was to bring a more cinematic way of telling his story. Having studied Cinematography and Motion Picture Production at USC, he could be very visual in his storytelling. He comparatively toned down the theatricality of Tamil cinema, reduced the number of songs (he called Indian films songies!), and tried to integrate the comedy track within the story.
   He also devised interesting camera movements even within the studios, he thought of transitions between his scenes and preferred to shoot on outdoor locations even in those days. And with his American roots, he brought in a higher degree of intimacy in his romantic scenes and made his women equal participants in the love scenes. Why, in both Ponmudi (1949) and Ambikapathy (1937), it is the heroine who initiates the romance and makes the first move and in the former film, she continues to lead the romance. In fact, Dungan’s women were quite strong and quite pro-active – again something, which I suspect, might have come from his understanding of gender equations as an American.

How did An American in Madras, take shape? How did you go about conducting research, finding the rare footage of Dungan, and working the look and feel of the film? What were your biggest challenges, and your expectations from the film?
This is a long, long story. But to put it as briefly as I can, the biggest challenge in making the film was that since Dungan had died in 2001, we didn’t have the man himself. It is rather difficult to create someone’s life and that too in a documentary when he’s not there. But again his American roots came to the rescue. Unlike us who have a very poor recording of archiving, Dungan meticulously recorded his life in India. And with it also being the Internet age, I could trace out the co-author of his autobiography, A Guide to Adventure, Barbara Smik, who led me to the West Virginia State Archives where Dungan had donated all his material.
   They were extremely helpful giving me whatever I need, knowing I was giving them a more complete picture of Dungan’s life in India. Apart from using over 300 lovely photographs, there was also some great footage of Dungan on the sets of his first three films in 1935-6. The films don’t exist anymore so only this footage gives us a little peak into what some of the scenes might have looked like. Even his documentary clip during World War II when he worked for the British Government, I got from America as the film didn’t exist here. I got clips of 5 of his films – Ambikapathy, Sakuntalai (1940), Meera (Tamil 1945 and Hindi 1947) and Manthiri Kumari (1950) courtesy the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), Pune. Ponmudi I traced out in Malaysia courtesy Columbia Video films.
   As we began shooting, the look and feel fell in place quite easily actually. We’ve kept it simple and focused – essentially on his years in India with a linear structure so we go along Dungan’s journey with him and see his growth as a filmmaker, film by film. I was lucky I had a fantastic technical crew – my colleagues from FTII – and my producer, Alex Anthony, a classmate from Lawrence School Lovedale, who didn’t question my budget or any of my decisions but let me go on doing whatever I wanted to do in the film, trusting me totally.

MS Subbulakshmi in Meera, courtesy West Virginia State Archives, USA

How does the style of Dungan's cinematographer, Jiten Banerjee, compare to that of other cinematographers in Indian cinema, such as VK Murthy? How did you find Jiten Banerjee's influence trickling into the cinema of the time?
Unfortunately, Seemanthani (1936) doesn’t exist, so we can judge Jiten Banerjee’s work for Dungan only in Meera of the two films he did for him. Some of the sequences in Meera are exquisite and poetic with some wonderful play of light and shade and some truly delicate camera movements. I would say Banerjee is right up there with the best of Indian cinematographers of his time. For Meera and for MS Subbulakshmi to look as ethereal as she did, Banerjee and Dungan even had a bust of MS made and they did elaborate lighting tests to see what lighting pattern suited her face structure best.

How did he go about making these films without speaking the local tongue? Have you found any insights into Dungan's filmmaking after your own film?
Dungan had the dialogue director at all times with him and worked with a team of assistants who knew both English and Tamil who could translate for him leaving him to concentrate on the action, expressions and emotions. When he got the translated script, he divided the page into two the dialogue on one half and the action on the other. He would then break it down into shots.
   I think I had researched for my film in detail, discussed it at length with the people I was interviewing and with my crew before shooting so barring a few minor surprises, we pretty much knew what aspects of Dungan’s cinema we were covering. So I had my insights and what attracted me to making the film in place in any case. In that sense I don’t think there was any major change in my perception of Dungan and his work after the film. Sure, I learnt a little more here and there but that was really it.

Available for streaming on Netflix. Read the complete interview at indulgexpress.com