Tamil Box Office’s American Hero

Published: 26th August 2014 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th August 2014 10:34 PM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI: It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Sunday evening at Savera was quite nostalgic, filled with old black and white and sepia-toned Madras memories and film-related trivia.

The hall was filled with elite maamis dressed in the bright hues of reds and greens with mild jewellery and glass bangles. Needless to mention about the fragrance of kaaram, kaapi and malli poo...

The documentary An American in Madras, which revolves around American filmmaker-cinematographer, Ellis R Dungan’s films, was screened as a part of Madras Week. This was to throw light on the significant contributions that Dungan made towards South Indian box office hits, way back 1930s. Interestingly, Dungan, who was in Madras for 15 years, made world-class Tamil films though he did not speak or understand a single word of the local language. Dungan, who set foot in the Tamil industry by sheer chance, was Ohio-born and received his education in California. 

He found himself making Indian film classics like Sathi Leelavathi (in 1936) where MGR played a small role, and that was the first time he was seen on screen. Also, there was Sakunthalai, Savithri and Meera, starring MS Subbulakshmi.

The documentary had over 300 photographs, arranged chronologically, taking us through the technological developments in Tamil cinema between 1935 and 1950.

Besides a collage of film clips (Ponmudi, Meera, Sathi Leelavathi, Shakuntala, Manthiri Kumari) collected from various archives, there were also stills and posters from Dungan’s films and interviews. The documentary had Dungan himself narrating his initial problems of shooting a Tamil film in Chennai and how he overcame them. We learnt that Dungan was the pioneer in introducing the moving camera, cabaret dance numbers and modern make-up, as well as the concept of the outdoor shoot in Tamil cinema.  In this sense, he was moving away from the influence of stage plays, imparting a Western perspective. Also, Dungan was criticised overall for introducing ‘vulgar kissing scenes’ in those days, going the American way. His women lead roles were pro-active and bold, unlike other films in celluloid.

Manthiri Kumari was his last film after which he started his company — Ellis Dungan Productions and for the next 30 years, he churned out documentary movies for Hollywood producer Duke Goldstone.

Interspersed with redefined cinematic techniques of his times, the documentary depicted the visual language of cinema instead of just theatrical elements. The documentary also had various film critics and personalities, among others like makeup assistant Muthu, R Venkatasamy, who had written T R Sundaram’s biography, Kamal Haasan and filmmaker-scholar K Hariharan, apart from Dungan’s personal friend Rochelle Shah and Dr Radha Viswanathan, who acted in Sakunthalai and Meera, sharing tidbits on Dungan.

After the screening of the documentary, the audience was seen interacting with the director, Mumbai-based filmmaker Karan Bali, and cinematographer Ramani    R V who shared their experiences in the making of the 80-minute film. Actor Rohini, historian V Sriram, Vincent D’Souza and actor Mohan Raman were also present.

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