The American Who Made MS Subbulakshmi a Film Star

Published: 29th July 2015 05:12 AM  |   Last Updated: 29th July 2015 05:12 AM   |  A+A-

CHENNAI: If one were to plot Uniter States of America (USA) and India on a cinematic graph traversing their links through the past few decades, two Bharat Ratnas - former CM and matinee idol MG Ramachandran and Carnatic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi - would be linked by a common point,  the late director Ellis R Dungan.

Dungan, whose enchantment with India made him extend his six-month vacation to a 15-year -sojouorn with the Tamil and Telugu film industry, is one of the focal points of ‘Kindred Nations’ an exhibition in India sponsored by the US consulate to showcase the centuries-old links between the two nations long before Barrack Obama and Narendra Modi’s Republic day bonhomie.

The exhibition is at Dakshin Chitra on East Coast Road till August 6 and will later travel to Hyderabad and Mumbai. On Saturday, a documentary ‘An American in Madras’ made by Karan Bali on Dungan was screened at Dakshin Chitra, as part of the exhibition.

The documentary, while following the life of Dungan, is filled with rich detail of the customs and traditions of the film industry at that time and how Dungan brought a revolutionary change to movie-making.

ami.jpg“His love scenes were intense, his heroines were bold and made their own choices. The technical expertise in his movies were of Hollywood standards,” said a number of people interviewed for the documentary.

Indian film-makers of the era welcomed Dungan with open arms to gain from the technical expertise he brought along.

MGR was first seen in the 1936 film Sathi Leelavathi and later got a big break through Manthiri Kumari in 1950, both directed by Dungan. Subbulaksmi, already a household name by then reached the pinnacle of stardom through Dungan’s Meera in 1945. For the Hindi dub, which catapulted her fame beyond the Vindhyas, her portions were the only one which were re-shot, the documentary reveals. “Sometimes she (MS Subbulaksmi) would not be in the right mood. I would have to get annoyed to get her angry so that she gave the correct shot,” says Dungan in one of the DD archives which is part of the documentary.

Another startling insight documented by the movie is how 70 percent of Sakuntalai (1940), written by Subbulakshmi’s husband T Sadasivam, was shot outdoors. “There is a mistaken notion that Bharatiraja took tamil cinema outdoors in the 1970s, but Dungan achieved that in the 40s itself,” says a film historian in the documentary.

Actor and film historian Mohan V Raman, in the documentary, notes how the Bhavans Rajaji Vidyashram school in Kilpauk stands at the site of Newtone studios, where Meera and Sakuntalai were shot. “The pasture on the other side of the canal, behind the studio would be used for outdoor shoots,,” he recounts. There is another interesting story about Meera. During the Second World War, Dungan could not enroll into his nation’s armed forces. He stayed on in the Madras Presidency as its official photographer and travelled far and wide. However, when Sadasivam floated the idea of Meera, Dungan left all other jobs and immediately came to shoot with his favourite actress.

“Compared to other movies at that time, the protagonist in Meera was restrained,” says film scholar and director K Hariharan in the documentary, comparing it with other devotional movies made at that time across India.  Mohan Ram points to how Jitan Baneerjee, the cinematographer of Meera, resorted to using a bust of Subbulaksmi to analyse how best he could light up her face to show her as an ethereal beauty.

In Manthiri Kumari, where dialogues were penned by DMK patriarch M Karunanidhi, Dungan wanted to replace MGR as his facial features didn’t suit the character. “However, Karunanidhi was insistent that his friend play that role. A compromise was reached at and that’s why you see MGR with a small beard on his chin,” recounts a team-member. Such was Dungan’s fascination with India, that his wife gave him an ultimatum to return to USA with the movie only 75 percent complete, the documentary shows. Later TR Sundaram, the producer finished the remaining portions. Later in his career, Dungan as an official photographer, captured the transfer of power from British to India in 1947 as also the Hindu-Muslim riots in 1948 and MK Gandhi’s funeral and scattering of his ashes in Allahbad.

Dungan’s place in the history of South Indian cinema was evident when the entire industry came forward to organise a program when he was invited to Chennai by his friend Rochelle Shah in the early 90s. “Only in India and in the South can it happen, that 43 years later he is remembered,” Shah says. Despite rejecting the invite, Subbulaksmi and Sadasivam made an entrance at the event. In-fact Subbulaksmi even rendered an impromptu devotional song in the hall. “There was not a single dry eye in the hall after she finished singing,” Shah recounts.

The finale? Kamal Hassan met up with Dungan at Hotel Connemara in Egmore. What happened during the personal moments with him? “I asked him for an autograph,” says Hassan in the documentary.

Dungan died a lonely death, spending his final years at a retirement home in USA. “Till the last day, he would call me up at 8.30 am and speak for a while,” recounts Shah wistfully.

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