NYIFF Diary: The American who gave Karunanidhi a break

Deepanjana Pal

May 07, 2014 15:57:32 IST

A man leaves the land of his birth and travels across oceans and continents. He makes his home far away, even though he is a foreigner in this new land. He works, earns respect and is feted. Then, after enjoying this success for almost two decades, he returns home only to find that there is nothing for him there but an everyday life. There is a sense of belonging, but it comes at a cost. In the foreign land, he was an outsider but he was famous. At home, he is a nobody.

This is filmmaker Ellis R Dungan's life, as rememebered in An American in Madras, a documentary directed by Karan Bali. Back in the 1930s and 1940s, India was home to a number of Americans and Europeans, many of whom worked in the film industries of Bombay and Madras despite not knowing the language in which the local movies were made. Dungan is one of them. He could manage broken Tamil at best, but despite this limited knowlege, he directed 12 Tamil films, edited most of them himself and is credited with bringing professionalism and modernism into the industry and movie-making. Among his most celebrated works is Meera, starring MS Subbulakshmi. Dungan's films were also launching pads for the careers of legendary figures like Karunanidhi (as a scriptwriter) and MG Ramachandran (as an actor).

NYIFF Diary: The American who gave Karunanidhi a break

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Bali's interest in Dungan was piqued in 2004, when he watched Meera and it struck him that the film's director had a distinctly un-Hindu name. Over the next eight years, Bali collected information about Dungan and discovered that even though Dungan's most illustrious years were in India, little of his work has been preserved in India. Dungan was remembered by the people who had worked with him, but there were few records or examples of his work. You can tell how desperate (and obsessive) Bali must have been from the fact that he has included an interview with a street vendor who remembers how Dungan had once hurled a life-size human doll off a cliff for a shooting.

An American in Madras is an old fashioned documentary about a fascinating man. The storytelling could certainly have been more adventurous, but Dungan was a character and his experiences as a director of Tamil films are all the drama the film needs. That said, there are some wonderful stories that Bali has chosen to ignore, like when Dungan dressed up as a pundit to get into a temple that barred foreigners entry. Bali's style is simple and straightforward as it pieces together Dungan's life from the sources that Bali was able to locate. There are excerpts from Dungan's films in An American in Madras. Bali has also spoken to film historians and people who had worked with Dungan, from make-up artists to MS Subbulakshmi's daughter (she worked as a child artist on two films that had starred her mother and were directed by Dungan). Some credit Dungan for encouraging bolder women characters in Tamil cinema and making onscreen romances less awkward than they were in other films of those times.

While the focus of An American in Madras is on Dungan's years in the Tamil film industry, the documentary ultimately offers a melancholy portrait of a man who struggled to find a sense of belonging. In India, he was respected, but a foreigner. In a number of films, his direction credit read, "Ellis R Dungan (Hollywood)" because his cache was his white American identity. He left India because his then wife couldn't bring herself to make India home. However, in America, Dungan was an unremarkable man whose life's work couldn't have counted for much, significant and memorable as it may have been to Tamil audiences. Imagine Dungan in the 1940s, trying to get jobs in America by saying he's made hit Tamil films, in India.

There's something particularly poignant about An American in Madras being screened at the NYIFF. Most of the people in the audience know what it's like to feel like a foreigner in a place that's supposed to be home and they also have some sense of how difficult it would have been for Dungan to convince Americans that his professional experience as a filmmaker in India should be taken seriously. It's significantly easier today, with South Asians popping up regularly in Hollywood movies and on American television. Dungan struggled and ultimately found work making documentaries, many of them on wildlife. What that says about the American perception of India and the Tamil film industry is another matter entirely.

Updated Date: May 07, 2014 16:34:54 IST