The real American Desi

Get bowled over by the exploits of American-born filmmaker Ellis R Dungan who became an iconic name in Tamil cinema, and whose life had all the ingredients of a full-fledged entertainer.

Filmmaker Karan Bali watched the 1947 Hindi classic Meera, a remake of the 1945 Tamil-language film of the same name, and loved it. In 2004, while researching an article for his portal on Indian cinema, he discovered that the director of both films was an American: Ellis R Dungan.

Ellis R Dungan on the sets of his film
Ellis R Dungan on the sets of his film

The thought of why an American would spend 15 years in Tamil Nadu to make movies during the 1930s and 1940s intrigued him, and led to the idea of a documentary.

The 80-minute film, titled An American in Madras, primarily traces American-born filmmaker Ellis R Dungan’s years in India. Born in 1909 and hailing from Barton, Ohio, Dungan reached the shores of India on February 25, 1935, intending to stay for six months but ended up staying for 15 years.

During this period, he brought many technical innovations to the developing Tamil Film Industry of the 1930s and Rs 40s, and infused a sense of professionalism into its filmmaking.

He achieved this, without understanding a word of the language. Dungan directed the great Tamil superstar MGR’s first film, Sathi Leelavathi, as well as famed Carnatic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi’s most famous films — Sakuntalai and Meera.

The film traces Dungan’s Indian connection from his first visit to India, right up to 1994, when on a trip to India, the Tamil Film Industry felicitated him in Chennai for his contribution to its development, a good 43 years after he had left India.

On: Today, 6.30 pm onwards
At: Little Theatre, NCPA, Nariman Point.
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