FROM THE ARCHIVES M2 THE MAGAZINE
Ellis Roderick Dungan was born in 1908 in Ohio. After travelling to France where he learned pho- tography, he attended the University of Southern California’s Cinematography and Motion Picture Production program.
Then in 1935 Dungan came to India for a few months to
make films with a friend. And quite by chance he started
working in the Tamil film industry. He ended up staying
back for over a decade.
In filmmaker Karan Bali’s documentary An American In
Madras we see the story of Dungan’s 15 years directing
Tamil films, even though he barely knew the language.
Apart from changing the technical aspects of Tamil cine-
ma, he is also credited with giving actor-director-politician
M G Ramachandran his first role. The director also worked
with M Karunanidhi (who later became the chief minister of
Tamil Nadu) and directed the luminous singer M S
Subbulakshmi in some of her iconic films.
After a world premiere at the Chennai International Film
Festival, the documentary is now headed to other festivals.
Bali, a Mumbai-based alumnus of the Film and Television
Institute of India, tells India Abroad about how he stumbled upon this fascinating story.
How did get drawn to Dungan’s story? Your name suggests
you are not Tamil. Did you grow up watching Tamil films?
I knew about Tamil films because I did my schooling in
Tamil Nadu... and I manage a Web site Upperstall.com that
explores classics of Indian films, and write-ups about luminaries of Indian cinema.
While researching for an article I came across Ellis
Dungan’s name in the Enclyopaedia of Indian Cinema by
Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen.
There was confusion about his name. In the Enclyopaedia
his name is written as Duncan. But in America if you look at
his school records or when he went to France to study photography he spelt his name as Dungan. In the South people
must have started pronouncing his name as Duncan.
Had you seen a lot of classic Tamil films?
I had seen a lot of classic Hindi films. Only recently I had
started to see regional cinema as I was searching for the
I remember seeing the Hindi version of Dungan’s Meera
(1947) with M S Subbulakshmi on Doordarshan. At that
time I had no clue it was directed by Dungan, an American.
Meera is referred to as Dungan’s most restrained film.
You mention in your film that Meera was dubbed in
Hindi from Tamil?
They actually reshot the songs to match her lip sync. And
one or two scenes with Meera’s parts were reshot, so that it
appears as if she is speaking in Hindi.
So Meera is probably the only film of M S Subbulakshmi
that is in Hindi?
Yes it is. I think it is because her family knew Rajaji (C
Rajagopachari, the last governor-general of India), and he
helped organize the premiere with Jawaharlal Nehru, Lord
and Lady Mountbatten and Sarojni Naidu.
But I thought of writing an article for Upperstall.com and
not make a film. This is going back to 2003-2004 when the
Internet was there, but it wasn’t that easy to get information.
It was only in 2009 that the idea materialized into a film,
Filmmaker Karan Bali shares the fascinating story of
Ellis Roderick Dungan with Aseem Chhabra
Ellis R Dungan shoots
Below, Karan Bali, left,
shoots the documentary
where Dungan shot
Valmiki (Telugu, 1945)
and Meera (1945).
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