By Oliver Thom
Directed by Karan Bali
The less than storied true tale of an Ohio-born director and his 15 year jaunt making movies in Southernmost India, An American in Madras is the story of Ellis R. Dungan – and his role as a rule breaking “gora“ (white man) in the South Indian cinema scene of the 1930’s.
Arriving as a fresh faced 26 year old (and at the invitation of a USC classmate), Dungan had planned to stay in India no longer than six months – but after 15 years he had directed 13 films (only five of which have survived) in three different languages – none of which he was able to speak.
It’s these 15 years and 13 films that are under the microscope in An American in Madras’ 80 or so minute running time. The documentary switches between talking heads, archival footage of Dungan and his movies, and interviews with scholars to give a critical context to Dungan and his films while crew anecdotes build a portrait of the director’s character on set.
One of a handful of foreign adventurer-directors working in India at the time, (and the only to use an all Indian crew) Dungan was a source for new ideas – and even if the plots weren’t new (often retellings of mythic Tamil folklore) the professional crews, outdoor filming, streamlined structures, visual treatment and strong female leads introduced by Dungan certainly were.
Breaking away to make movies movies and not just theatre on film, Dungan was able to soften the influence of the stage – pushing close ups and zooms, camera tracking and flashback sequences and a refined style of acting that forced out the theatre connection that had been the norm.
It’s these changes to South Indian (Tamil) cinema that make up the majority of An American in Madras, (minus the narrated footage of Dungan’s own films, the documentary might only be 40 minutes long) and the story of an outsider directing films in a language he doesn’t understand while remaining unknown in the land of his birth is introduced but left mostly untold – similarly some of the film’s more interesting side stories are left marginalised by the documentary’s filmmaking focus.
Scenes of ruined studios and studios lots (once producers of regional stories in regional languages) converted into commercial housing echo of an age of innocence being overtaken by Bollywood blockbusters and modernity – but there is no context to confirm the impression. And Dungan the adventurer, returning to America to save his marriage and making industrial films in Pittsburgh leaving the creativity and freedom of India behind for a country that never knew him feels heart-breaking. A snapshot of a return visit as a film consultant sees him all smiles while taking a mud bath with a rhino (it’s clear that Dungan was a natural adventurer) – and a reunion 43 years later sees hundreds of guests arrive to welcome him back – only for him to return to his relative anonymity stateside feels like a true tragedy.
It’s the unearthing of these small stories that the film introduces and leaves to the audience that are its greatest success. Dungan changed so much in Tamil cinema and created so many stars in his films – and the filmmaking achievement is the true emphasis of An American in Madras, but it’s the human interest in Ellis Dungan – and the almost tragic story of his fantastic and adventurous 15 years in Indian cinema and later return to a quiet normality and virtual anonymity that the films audience will really remember.