Friday, July 29, 2022

एलिस र. डंकन

excerpts from a book authored by one of M।S.’s mentors in the Tamil movie world and her English tutor.
Americans in Tamil cinema
Ellis R. Dungan (Courtesy: Randor Guy collection)
AS MUCH as I have been repeating that the mansion in Government Estate is Government House and not Admiralty House as so many, including its occupants, insist on calling it, Randor Guy keeps repeating that that American film director who left his mark on Tamil cinema was Ellis Dungan and not Duncan as so many keep calling him. In the last few weeks, Randor Guy must have exploded at least half a dozen times over this repetition of what he considers sacrilege, with even reports of his own talks carrying the error.
Ellis R. Dungan, a cinematography graduate of the University of Southern California, arrived in India in 1935 with Michael Ormalev, a college-mate, at the invitation of another USC student, Mani Lal Tandon of Bombay, whose family was planning to enter the film industry. When those plans did not take off, Tandon invited them to Calcutta where he was directing the Tamil film "Nandanar." There, he introduced them to a Tamil film producer who was making "Sathi Leelavathi" and suggested that, tied up as he was, Dungan be hired in his place to direct the film. When the American was hired, it was to be the beginning of a new era in Tamil film-making, Dungan - with Ormalev having vanished along the way - making a major contribution to it.
"Sathi Leelavathi," released in 1936, may not have been the greatest success as a film, but it launched the careers of many who were to become successful in the Tamil film world. Marudur Gopala Ramachandran made his debut in the film as did M.K. Radha, T.S. Balaiah, and N.S. Krishnan. And the script was based on a novel by S.S. Vasan that he had serialised in Ananda Vikatan. When Vasan sold the film rights of the novel, it was his first involvement with filmdom. That script, similar to that of another film being produced at the same time, led to legal action that was resolved only when Vasan pointed out that he and the scriptwriter of the other film had both derived their stories from Mrs. Henry Wood's "Danesbury House!" The legal wrangle delayed "Sathi Leelavathi's" release, and though N.S. Krishnan had started work in it first, he found himself debuting on the screen in his second film!
Much in demand
Dungan was much in demand after his debut film and made "Seemanthini" and "Iru Sahotharargal," the latter, deriving from `Corsican Brothers,' his first hit. Then followed an even greater hit, "Ambikapathy," owing to Romeo and Juliet and Thyagaraja Bhagavathar's singing. But what sealed Dungan's reputation were two films now considered classics of Tamil cinema, "Sakunthalai" (1940) and "Meera" (1945), both starring M.S. Subbulakshmi. Other films followed, but none as successful as these. In fact, a couple of films he made were panned by the press as being "vulgar" and he was accused of "corrupting the population with American ways." Dungan, however, regained lost ground and bowed out on a high note with "Manthri Kumari," written by Mu. Karunanidhi. Dungan left for the U.S. shortly after its release in 1950. During his 15 years in India, he had introduced many a Hollywood technique to the Tamil cinema, such as modern make-up, the mobile camera and getting actors away from bringing the stage on to the screen. But he also introduced the cabaret number, which later led to song-and-dance routines becoming essential ingredients of Indian cinema.
Another American who played an important role in Tamil film world was William J. Moylan, who was general manager of Vasan's Gemini Studio. He was not a film professional, but he brought management skills to what was a huge, unwieldy operation, given the penchant of the man he called `Boss' to have a stableful of every discipline. Moylan's wife ensured that not only were the gardens at Gemini kept immaculate, but that the whole studio was spick and span.
This mentor is an American, named Ellis R।Dungan ....– one of the pioneer directors of Tamil movies in the 1930s and 1940s and he provides a vintage angle (which others cannot provide) on how he trained M।S। for her hit movies, as a director।
दुन्गन...’s name was missing in the recent eulogies I read on M.S. But he was an influential presence in young M.S.’s life. As a fan of movie history, I purchased recently a copy of दुन्गन ’s autobiography ‘A Guide to Adventure; An Autobiography’ (2001).

Ellis R।Dungan, born in Barton, Ohio, in 1909, landed in India in 1935. Next year, he directed his first Tamil movie Sathi Leelavathi, which introduced to the Tamil movie world, giants and trend-setters like MGR, T.S.Balaiah and N.S.Krishnan who became household names to all Tamils. It was also Dungan who directed the two movies which featured M.S. as the singing star; Sakunthalai (1940) and Meera (1945).
What is interesting in Dungan’s reminiscences is the fact, he probably is the only one (who was in a position and also as an elder) to insult M.S. ‘in front of others’ so that she could deliver a great performance in Sakunthalai movie. Of course, he took the prior permission to do so, from M.S.’s husband cum manager T.Sadasivam. This anecdote is revealing in another plane; that even an artist of M.S.’s caliber had to be taunted to give her ‘the best’ which was somehow failing to come out from her. Dungan left Madras to return to USA in 1950. His final Tamil movie was another classic, Manthiri Kumari [The Minister’s Daughter], which featured MGR

and Madhuri Devi। The script for this movie was written by none other than
M.Karunanidhi, the DMK leader, then a 26 year old youth. Dungan died on December 1, 2001 at the age of 92. I reproduce excerpts from Dungan’s reminiscences on how he directed M.S. in her two ever popular Tamil movies.
Reminiscences on directing M.S. Subbulakshmi - the Musician-Movie Star excerpts from Ellis R.Dungan with Barbara Smik -* A Guide to Adventure: An Autobiography, March 2002 -
"In 1939 I had a call from film producer K.Subramaniam in Madras, who was to produce, or at least direct, a film for M.S.Subbulakshmi and her Kalki magazine publisher husband, T.Sadasivam. They had formed their own film company and wanted to produce a mythological film called Sakunthalai (the name of the female lead character). They asked Subramaniam to direct it, but due to a prior commitment, he was unable to obligate himself to this film and asked me if I would accept it. That is when I first met the great actress and musician M.S.Subbulakshmi. I always addressed her as ‘M.S.’ on the set, as it was a common practice in Indian film circles to address the actors by their initials.
Sakunthalai gave me the delightful opportunity of working with the living legend M.S.Subbulakshmi. I am reminded of a scene where she is supposed to speak angrily to her screen husband, a king, who was seated on his throne surrounded by his courtiers and others. After seemingly hours of rehearsals I was unable to get M.S. into an angry, fighting mood befitting the dialogue. So I took her husband aside and asked his permission to scold her – even embarrass her in front of all the other actors and crew on the set. To my surprise, he agreed. So I went back and really lit into her, saying how much time and money she had wasted on this scene, in retakes alone, and how disappointed I was in her. I even threatened to cancel shooting if she did not shape up.
What really hurt her most of all – it actually brought tears to her eyes – was when I finally told her in front of everyone on the set what a lousy actress she was (of course, she wasn’t). I then stomped off the set. She was shocked – completely shocked – but the strategy worked. Her husband came to her rescue to soothe her wounded feelings. M.S., after drying her eyes, became angry at me as well as at herself, and with fire in her eyes she quickly turned to King Dushyanta and let him have it full blast. Fortunately, the lights were on and the camera and sound were running. Undoubtedly this was the finest piece of acting M.S. had ever done. I was so pleased and proud of her that I embraced her in front of her husband and all on the set. I no doubt embarrassed her at that time. M.S. understood only a few basic words of English, but she understood well the angry mood I was in at the time of degrading her acting ability. Working with an artist one on one in highly dramatic and emotional scenes demands much patience on the part of the director. At times the use of various ‘tricks of the trade’ are necessary in order to accomplish the desired results.
Sakunthalai was one of my most popular films, and also one of my favorites – due mainly to Subbulakshmi’s fine acting and two special scenes. The first I refer to as the ‘ring’ scene. It seems that one day when Sakunthalai was bathing in the river, the ring her husband gave her slipped off her finger and was swallowed by a fish. I spent much time and effort in creating and filming this scene: cutting back and forth in tight close-ups of the ring and Sakunthalai’s face, as the ring descended downward in the water. In order to follow the ring in tight close-up we had to shoot through a small glass tank filled with water and a clear viscous fluid to slow down the ring’s descending motion. We also shot the scene in slow motion at various speeds. This scene created quite a stir and applause in Madras film circles.
For the other special scene, I hired a scantily dressed female dancer for the role of a water nymph. She was a young European girl in her late twenties, possessing a beautiful Venus-type figure, who performed acrobatic dances with a male partner in cabaret shows at the Connemara Hotel in Madras. In an unheard-of technique in Indian films, she came up out of a water tank and danced in her rather skin-tight one-piece bathing suit. Believe me, it created quite a bit of excitement among the Indian actors and film crew
Of all the Tamil theatrical motion picture films that I directed in India, the film Meera was considered by my peers and local film critics to be my best – and I am inclined to agree. The picture was produced by Chandraprabha Cinetone, a company formed by M.S. and her husband, T.Sadasivam. I directed the Tamil version and later the Hindi version of Meera.
An innovation I brought to Indian films was the ‘shooting script’, where the script would be broken down into scenes and shots, with action on the left half of the page and dialogue on the right half. First I would have each scene translated for me from Tamil into English, and then I’d go to the hill country for a month or two to write the shooting script…I told Sadasivam I wanted to go to Coonoor to work on the Meera script. He readily agreed and even offered to set me up in a small cottage with cook and servant. Having acquired a taste for South Indian food, as spicy hot as some of the dishes are, I accepted his kind offer. Every Sunday M.S. and Sadasivam would pay me a visit to check on the progress of the script and on my welfare. They would pick up the script pages and take them down to Madras for typing in English…
At the end of a month I was back in Madras with the completed shooting script preparing to cast the film, conduct dialogue and music rehearsals, and construct sets at Newtone Studio. We first had the extensive ‘in-studio’ filming to do in Madras. There is one scene of which I was particularly proud in this film. M.S. had beautiful large eyes, and I wanted to highlight them during one of her songs. I used a special lighting with equipment that I’d brought with me from the U.S. and isolated the area of her eyes with two ‘gobos’ – one at the top of her eyes and one underneath – and feathered the edges of the gobos by putting a diffusion screen on the top and bottom edges to soften them. The final cut showed only the close-up of her eyes, which filled the screen. It was a beautiful effect.
…During our forced breaks in the Meera shooting schedule (due mostly to the rationing of film, processing chemicals and photographic supplies during the war years), I often took on ‘still’ photographic assignments for Kalki, the popular Tamil weekly magazine published by T.Sadasivam and ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurti. These assignments included several of M.S.’s musical concerts. Notwithstanding her worldwide name and fame as a musical genius, M.S.’s personal life has always been a very simple one. She is unaffected by her celebrity status and international renown and is of almost childlike innocence and naivete.
As an actress she worked hard to perfect her art. Since M.S. understood a smattering of English at the time I first met her, I was later able to communicate quite well with her during the making of her films. When time permitted I also taught her a few words of English. By the time we completed Meera, she had mastered enough English to carry on a decent conversation all of which held her in good stead later when she visited Europe, England and the U.S. on concert tours. Since she was always surrounded by musicians in her home, rehearsing songs for a recital somewhere, I had to literally wait my turn to conduct film rehearsals. She was quite a busy lady and a lovable one…
…In January of 1994, I again was invited to return to India by some friends in the film industry (of course, the invitation is always open there)…When I got to the reception on my behalf, I was overwhelmed by all the attention from the press, film organizations, and actors. Most of the guests were from my filmmaking days in Madras. Among them was the great actress/musician M.S.Subbulakshmi and her husband T.Sadasivam. The chief minister of Madras and the American consul general were also there to welcome me.…M.S. sat next to me at my table, along with her husband, and later during the evening she honored me with a song. What a reception! Friends congratulating me…all the former film stars greeting me…I couldn’t believe it! These people were all there for me? Many of the guests would embrace me or get down on their knees and ‘take the dust of my feet’. And they wanted me to get up and speak, but when I got to the podium I was so overcome with emotion that I couldn’t speak. Words failed me, and the tears started to flow. I know the guests must have been disappointed, but I had to offer my apologies and sit back down. I’d never experienced anything like that in my life."

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