An American cinematographer, born in Ohio on May 11, 1909, an alumnus of University of Southern California's first batch of film students comes to India on the invite of a fellow USC mate - ML Tandon in 1935 to see what he can do in the Indian film Industry. Intending to stay in India for about six months to a year, he stays behind for a decade and a half, makes several Tamil films, introduces MGR as an actor and directs MS Subbulakshmi's most celebrated film, Meera (1945) as well as the seminal MGR hit Manthiri Kumari (1950) among others, before returning to USA! The man was Ellis R Dungan.
After informally assisting Tandon on Bhakta Nandanar (1935), Dungan's first film in India was Sathi Leelavathi (1936), based on SS Vasan's novel. Though successful in its time, it is today chiefly remembered as the film that introduced MGR to Tamil audiences. It was, however, with Iru Sagodarargal (1936), that Dungan became a top director in the newly developing Tamil film industry. The film is one of the earliest Tamil films based on a contemporary, social theme as against mythologicals and is a story about the conflicts and values of the joint family system. The film was shot in Bombay at Saroj Movietone and was a key film in Dungan's attempts to create a more sophisticated cinematic language for Tamil films which otherwise were just photographed drama and nothing more. Duncan edited the film, drastically reduced the number of songs, made sure the comedy track was incorporated coherently into the film's main storyline and also shot sequences outdoors wherever he could.
Since obviously Dungan did not know Tamil, he hired interpreters who were known as 'rush directors'. But that is not to sat that Dungan did not understand the importance of the spoken word. He introduced the famed scenarist Elangovan with Ambikapathy (1937), Ponmudi (1949) remains one of poet Bharathidasan's best known scripts while Manthiri Kumari was Kaurunanidhi's first major literary contribution to cinema.
Ambikapathy was one of the earliest film dealing with historical fiction in Tamil Cinema. Dungan saw the film as a parallel to Romeo and Juliet. So he based some of the film's sequences on the latter. A highlight of the film is the balcony scene showing the hero, Ambikapathy climbing up the balcony to meet his beloved, the princess Amaravathi. The film was made at New Theatres Studio in Calcutta and the music was composed by the blind singer-composer KC Dey. It ran for a year, one of gthe earliest Tamil films to do so.
Meera (1945), is one of Dungan's most well-known films. The film starred MS Subbulakshmi, who played Meerabai. Originally a huge Tamil hit, the equally successful Hindi version made a couple of years laterin 1947 had the great Sarojini Naidu introduce Subbulakshmi to a North Indian audience. The Hindi version premiere was attended by Lord and Lady Mountbatten and Jawaharlal Nehru among others. Her rendering of Meera Bhajans in Hindi remained for years the definitive version of Meerabai's immortal lyrics.The Tamil version is known for some of novelist Kalki's best work as a lyrics writer, in particular the song Katrinile Varum Geetham. It is said that Dungan and his cinemtographer used a mould of Subbulakshmi's face and shot it at various angles with different lighting techniques. After viewing the results, they chose the best ones to create Meera's ethereal, angelic beauty. The scene where a young Meera changes into adulthood through the songs, Nanda Bala En Manala (young Meera) and Murali Mohana (adult Meera) with an interlude piece in between to show the passage of time remains much admired even today as does the sequence showing the spread of the popularity of Meera's songs across the country.
Interestingly, Dungan had directed Subbulakhsmi earlier in Sakuntalai (1940) where she played the title role opposite another stalwart of Carnatic music, GN Balasubramaniam. The songs Premayil Yavum Marandhome and Anandamen Solvene were extremely popular.
During World War II, Dungan was engaged to make war propaganda films. He made Returning Soldier (1945), a film in Tamil with TS Balaiah in the lead, in support of the war effort. He was the offical photographer for the Madras Government during this period.
Dungan made Ponmudi about two Siva Mudaliar families in the business milieu of Kaveripooram whose children have been betrothed to each other. But the two families have a fallout over a land deal which forces the children to meet in secret. When they get caught, the boy, Ponmudi, is sent to North India on 'business' while the girl, Poonkothai, runs away from home. Of course the distraught parents make up, send meesages that all is well everything gets but not before Ponmudi has to be rescued from tribals as he was being prepared as a human sacrifice! The movie created an outrage in conservative Tamil audiences due to the bols love scenes and did not go down very well with them. Dungan was criticized for 'corrupting the Tamils with American ways!'
Dungan's last Tamil film was the MGR box office smash hit Manthiri Kumari. The film was based on the Tamil classic, Kundalakesi. Its dialogues by M Karunanidhi were extremely popular. His barbs against the royal priest were part of the ideology of the Dravidian movement. The songs were another major factor in the film's success in particular Varai Nee Varai sung by Tiruchi Loganathan. The film also sees a dance number by the Travancore sisters. While MGR, of course, played the hero, a commandant of the king's army, the portrayal of the minister's daughter played by Madhuri Devi is the standout performance in the film. She plays an assertive and confident woman who handles a sword with much dexterity and who kills her wayward husband. Such an independent female character was a rarity in films then.
Dungan returned to the States after Manthiri Kumari was 3/4 complete due to personal problems. He came back to India for the Indo-US co-production, The Jungle (1952) starring Rod Cameron, Marie Windsor and Caeser Romero, on which he was associate producer,. The film was even dubbed into Tamil as Kaadu (1952)! Dungan continued to revisit India occassionally as 2nd unit photographer for Harry Black (1958) and Tarzan Comes to India (1962) or directing documentaries with an Indian backdrop. He was given a hero's welcome and felicitated by the Tamil film industry on a visit to India in 1994.
In America, Dungan formed Ellis Dungan Productions and made documentary shots, industrial films and the like for nearly two decades from 1963 onwards.
Dungan passed away in Wheeling, West Virginia in the United States on December 1, 2001.