Dir. Karan Bali
There are peculiar and fascinating stories tucked away in many corners of the 100-year history of Indian cinema. Fortunately, there are also filmmakers like Karan Bali who have a passion for exploring that history and telling those stories. Ellis R. Dungan was an American filmmaker who, astonishingly, became one of the top directors of Tamil films in the 1930s and 40s. Bali's documentary An American in Madras explores how this midwestern man came to Tamil films, and the tremendous mark he made on them.
An American in Madras uses archive photographs, interviews with Dungan's friends and Tamil-film contemporaries, and footage from a fascinating Doordarshan interview with Dungan himself, to place Dungan's films in their context. In addition to telling Dungan's story, the film provides insight into the themes and trends in Tamil cinema of the period.
In that way the film is about more than just the curio of a white American creating popular cinema in a language he did not speak and for a culture so vastly different from his own. Dungan inhabited a fertile and innovative period in the history of Tamil films, and An American in Madras explores why Tamil cinema was open to giving an utter outsider a chance to contribute to it. Dungan's success required openness on his part, too - to styles and themes quite different from those he had studied at the University of Southern California's brand new film school, and to trusting his scriptwriters and actors to understand and deliver stories that would resonate with the Tamilian audience.
Dungan was not the only foreigner to contribute to Indian cinema during this era. An American in Madras notes others, such as Franz Osten, who directed Ashok Kumar and Devika Rani in Achhut Kanya in 1936. An American in Madras touches on the zeitgeist that made such infusion possible, what these foreign directors learned from Indian cinema and what Indian cinema learned from them. Dungan worked with some of Tamil cinema's greatest stars, still revered as such today, including M. K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar (MKT) and M. S. Subbulakshmi. The latter starred in Meera, Dungan's best-known work, popular and influential enough to have been remade in Hindi.
Dungan returned to America after Meera, but never came close to replicating the success he had enjoyed in Tamil cinema. An American in Madras presents a careful and fascinating study of the confluent streams that created this unique moment in Tamil-film history, and of the man around whom these streams merged.
An American in Madras is, as of this writing, being screened in various festivals and presentations around India. Please follow the movie's Facebook page for updates on screening and distribution.