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An American In Madras: A Story Of How A Foreigner Revolutionised Tamil Cinema


As part of the Madras Day celebrations, the US Consulate on Wednesday organized a screening of the documentary An American in Madras that traces the life of American filmmaker Ellis R Dungan, who directed numerous films in India during the 30s and 40s. The documentary directed by Karan Bali was presented by actor and film historian Mohan V Raman.

Dungan, a product of the University of Southern California, is known for modernising Tamil cinema. He did away with the greasepaint and introduced modern methods of make-up. He also brought in Dolly camera which would later go on to be called ‘Dungan Dolly’ – an apparatus that allowed the filmmaker to move the camera around on tracks. Until then, cameras were static.

Dungan has also been credited with launching M.G.R’s film career with the 1936 movie Sathi Leelavathi as well as directing Carnatic musician M.S. Subbulakshmi in two movies – Sakuntalai in 1940 and Meera in 1945. Meera catapulted M.S into stardom – the film and the lead actress had won various accolades. While Dungan ushered in all these changes, he was also criticized by his detractors for depicting vulgarity in his movies.

The documentary starts with how he was offered a chance to direct movies in India through a friend whose father ran a studio. It shows how what was supposed to be a six-month stint in the subcontinent turned into a span of 15 years.

The documentary even contains footage of M.G. Ramachandran’s first on-screen appearance. Apart from several scholars and film historians like Theodore Bhaskaran, Uma Vangal, S. Krishnaswamy speaking, it also features C.M. Muthu, a make-up man who worked with Dugan, narrating his experiences.

Towards the end of the documentary, Rochelle Shah, a friend of Dungan’s narrates how the Tamil film fraternity came together in 1992 to felicitate Dungan on his last visit to India. It ends with Dungan establishing his own production house in the US and switching to make documentaries. Kamal Haasan also makes a brief appearance in the documentary to narrate his experience with Dungan.

The documentary is available on Netflix India.

Image Courtesy: The Indian Quarterly

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