Shweta Basu Prasad’s digital playlist: An American in Madras travels with filmmaker Ellis R Dungan through Tamil cinema

Shweta Basu Prasad’s digital playlist: This week's recommendation is An American in Madras. Extensive film clips and interviews tell the story of American filmmaker Ellis R Dungan, who spent fifteen years in India and helped define Tamil cinema. It is a biographical documentary, available on Netflix.

Written by Shweta Basu Prasad | Mumbai | Updated: July 7, 2017 8:43:20 pm
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I hated history in school. I couldn’t understand why one has to learn, what someone did hundred years ago. Battles, speeches, forming a nation – was something that bored me. Till some years later, when I started reading a lot many biographies and visited palaces and ruins, I learnt the importance of history and its significance in our lives. There is actually so much to learn from people who lived, so inspiring to know what they thought or what were their world-views. Their ideas shaped the world that we live in today.

Cinema, being a sound and visual medium, has stood witness to a lot of historical moments too. The history of Indian cinema itself has been a very fascinating subject. Who were the people who started the century old Indian film industry? What were their challenges in those days? These questions (and many more) have always build curiosity for many film enthusiasts like me. Cinema immortalizes ordinary people. Not just the ones we watch on the silver screens, but also the behind the scene heroes.

This week my recommendation is about one such hero, Mr. Ellis R Dungan, who is to date considered the father figure of Tamil film industry, which of the largest film producing industries in the world, in a biographical documentary An American in Madras available on Netflix.

Logline: Extensive film clips and interviews tell the story of American filmmaker Ellis R Dungan, who spent fifteen years in India and helped define Tamil cinema.

The documentary starts with the legendary Carnatic vocalist and actress MS Subbalakshmi singing a love ballad from one of her films in the early 1940’s directed by Ellis R Dungan – or fondly called Dungan, followed by film historians like S Theodore Baskaran and stalwart Kamal Hassan introducing him as the one of the most influential filmmakers in the formative years of Tamil cinema between 1935 to 1950’s.

Born in Barton, Ohio in 1909, Ellis Roderick Dungan lived an adventurous life. Buying a ticket to Spain from his savings of working at a gas station, he then bicycled to France, where he spent his next two years working in the American library in Paris while studying photography. Dungan admits in the documentary that photography gave him the bug. He held exhibitions in the local library, till one day when the director of the library promised to sponsor his education in photography which made Ellis pack his bags and move back to the United states and get enrolled in the first batch of photography and motion picture production in the university of southern California. After three years in homeland, Dungan’s friend, a wealthy Indian boy, suggested that they come to India and make movies in English for the English audience at his father’s new film studio. What was planned to be a six months trip in 1932, expanded to fifteen glorious years of Ellis R Dungan’s life.

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In the formative years of Indian cinema, Indians trusted a foreigner more, as they were technically sound as compared to Indians who were still adapting to the motion picture viewing and craft. Hence, just like the German director Franz Osten who directed Devika Rani and Ashok Kumar starrer 1936 Bombay Talkies’ classic Achootkanya, Dungan too got attuned to the foreign language, paying more attention to the craft over the new culture and land. Dungan introduced many new techniques in which a film could be made. One of his biggest contributions was to introduce track and dolly. The otherwise still interior shoots were given movements. He also removed too many songs, made shot divisions that made the narrative edgy. Dungan wisely collaborated with celebrated writers of Tamil Nadu of that time to write with him for his films.
Dungan was also the official photographer from Madras who captured many important images during the world war two and the Indian independence movement.

The documentary has been shot modestly, at various studios, offices and homes. Clips from various films of Dungan, like Ambikapthy, Shakunthala and Meera (made in both Tamil 1945 and Hindi 1947) leave you mesmerized while fun anecdotes of the bygone era, and well edited sequences make the film appetizing. Director Karan Bali, an alumnus of FTII (Pune) made a brave choice making a film about an American, and made a clear point, that Dunagn didn’t stand out because of his skin color but his ability as a filmmaker.

Sadly out of the thirteen films that Ellis Dungan made, only five of those film prints survive today. I wish there was a museum of sorts for legends like Ellis R Dungan and many others who disappear with the turn of page in the book of time.

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(Shweta Basu Prasad is a national award winning actress, famed for Makdee, Iqbal and television show Chandra Nandini. Shweta is a graduate in mass media and journalism.)

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