since the guy was still in my
You must have done a lot of
research before you started shooting the film, especially finding
all the talking heads. How long
did it take you to find them?
I knew S Theodore Baskaran,
who is a Tamil film historian. I
had already talked about the
idea with him.
Baskaran led me to Dungan’s
autobiography, which was published in 2001, the same year he
It was co-authored by a woman called Barbara Smik.
Somehow through Google
search I was able to get her e-mail.
I got the book, because a friend, Shivendra Singh
Dungarpur (director, Celluloid Man, a documentary about
P K Nair, who ran the film archives for FTII — India
Abroad, September 21, 2012) had a copy.
Barbara put me in touch with the West Virginia State
University archives. Dungan had left bulk of life’s work and
images with the university.
When it seemed that the film was actually going to happen, Theodore helped me track Radha Vishwanathan (the
daughter of M S Subbulakshmi) in Bangalore. She played
the young Shakuntalai and Meera. And M S Subbulakshmi
appeared in both films.
She looks so graceful and charming in your film.
Actually her face has not changed at all since she was a
I also found the man who saw the day-for-night shoot in
Dungan’s last film, Manthiri Kumari. He is the one who
shares the anecdote about M Karunanidhi, who was hired
to write the script of the film, and he wanted MGR to play
the lead. But Dungan did not find MGR photogenic
because of the cleft on his chin. So they reached a compro-
mise and Dungan gave MGR a small beard to cover his
That is one of the funniest stories in your film. It is fascinating that we see MGR’s career being launched by
Dungan in Sathi Leelavathi (1936). And there is
Karunanidhi and M S Subbulakshmi who looked so radiant in Dungan’s films.
Also Dungan worked with M K Thyagaraja Bhagavathar
Thyagaraja was a huge Tamil star until 1944. His career
ended when he was implicated in a murder case and jailed
for two-and-a-half years. Though he came out after 30
months, other actors had taken over and he never recovered his career.
I liked the young woman who is a PhD scholar on Tamil
That’s Uma Vangal. She and K Hariharan teach at the L V
Prasad Film and Television Academy in Chennai. One thing
led to another through these people.
I am still fascinated that Dungan came to India for six
months and stayed for 15 years.
What happened was that M L Tandon, who was Dungan’s
classmate at USC, promised him a chance to make English
films at a studio his father was supposed to be building.
When Dungan arrived here he realized that there was no
studio being made. But Tandon had managed to get a Tamil
film that was shooting in Calcutta. Dungan assisted him and
that led to his getting work in Madras.
Initially, there was concern that this guy was American
and he didn’t know the language. But all Tandon said was
that he was from Hollywood. They were even putting this in
credits — Direction: Ellis R Dungan, Hollywood.
Dungan must have been going back to America.
He used to go back to visit. And each time he would go he
would bring something with him, like the Max Factor make-up kit. But once his films succeeded, one film led to another
and he stayed back.
I realize that he did make some industrial films in America
and later also some animal documentaries in India. But he
never worked in Hollywood.
When he went back in 1950 he got work as an India expert.
He never got feature film work and it was tough to break
into Hollywood since he was unknown.
And he seemed quite comfortable living in India. His wife was the one who
had issues with India.
Most Americans are very open and easy
to get along with. Dungan didn’t have the
British stiffness in him. If you look at his
footage it is clear he was very easy to get
He only learned just functional Tamil
and essentially directed in English.
I loved hearing about the fact that he
took the camera out of the studios.
Not just outdoors, but he even
moved the camera indoors. In those
days because they had to light up the
studios, they didn’t like to move the
camera. If you moved the camera, you
had to light the different light zones
for the movement.
It was after I saw his films and I had
also seen Hindi films of the 1930s that I
realized there was a definite cinematic
form that Dungan brought to Tamil cinema. Until then most
Tamil films were theatrical stage dramas shot on celluloid.
I loved the anecdote about the carbon microphones
Dungan wanted his actors to perform naturally. But the
carbon microphones did not capture sound very well and the
sound recordist wanted them to speak loudly. That became
You found the footage of Dungan working at the archives
Yes. In fact, the footage of him on his sets is maybe the first
such documentation of the ‘making of a film’ in Indian cinema. I have not seen anything similar out of the Hindi film
industry — Bombay Talkies or New Theatres — at that time.
He had someone shooting him while he was directing?
Yes. It came naturally to him to keep a record of his
time in India.
Bollywood has woken up to it for marketing, not
COUR TESY: WES T VIRGINIA S TATE ARCHIVES
COUR TES Y: WES T VIRGINIA S TATE ARCHIVES
Left, Ellis R Dungan’s Manthiri Kumari, starring M G Ramachandran,
and written by M Karunanidhi (not pictured), both former Tamil Nadu
Below right, the documentary celebrates a filmmaker who is credited
pioneering moves in camera work and sound.
Below left, a scene from Iru Sahodarargal (Two Brothers, 1936)
FROM THE ARCHIVES