Ellis R Dungan, an American born film director, made Tamil films from 1936 to 1950. An alumnus of the University of Southern California, (USC)’s Cinema Department, he moved to India for a short visit in 1935 on the invite of a fellow USC mate, ML Tandon. Dungan ended up stying back for a decade and a half.
He informally assisted Tandon on the Tamil film Bhakta Nandanar (1935).
Dungan’s first film in India was Sathi Leelavathi (1936), based on SS Vasan’s novel. The film starred famed Carnatic musician 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.
He made a number of Tamil films and one Hindi film Meera (1947). He introduced many new techniques to Indian cinema despite the technical limitations of that period. Dungan is credited with introducing modern make up, the mobile camera and cabaret dance numbers to Tamil Cinema and moving it away from the influence of stage plays.
Dungan’s last Tamil film was the MGR box office smash hit Manthiri Kumari.
Dungan returned to the States after Manthiri Kumari was 3/4 complete due to personal problems with his wife, Alice. He, however, 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)! After this, Dungan continued to revisit India occasionally 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 his last visit to India in 1994.
His filmography consists of Nandhanar (1935) (uncredited), Sathi Leelavathi (1936), Seemanthini (1936), Iru Sahodarargal (1936), Ambikapathi (1937), Suryaputri (1940), Sakuntalai (1940), Kalamegam (1940), Daasi Penn (1943), Valmiki (1945), Returning Soldier (1945), Meera (1945), Ponmudi (1950) and Mandhiri Kumari (1950).
During his film career in South India, Dungan directed the debut films of several popular Tamil film actors, including M.K. Radha, M.G. Ramachandran, T.S. Balaiah and N.S. Krishnan. He introduced the famed scenarist Elangovan with Ambikapathy (1937), Ponmudi (1949) remains one of poet Bharathidasan’s best known scripts while Manthiri Kumari was DMK leader M Kaurunanidhi’s first major literary contribution to cinema.
Dungan passed away in Wheeling, West Virginia in the United States on December 1, 2001. He had lived there since 1958 once he returned to America. He is the subject of a documentary film, An American in Madras (2013).