Filmy Ripples: Cross-border & cross-cultural talents in early Tamil Film Industry

By P.V. Gopalakrishnanan

Some of the early Tamil movies, interestingly, had people from other parts of India or even abroad working for their Production in various capacities. They included Film Directors, Cinematographers, Editors and various other Technical fields. The logic for this could be that the cinema in its nascent stage down South was largely devoid of such technical lot and had to scout for such talents elsewhere till such time the native talents were groomed & be ready for absorption into the then pristine Tamil Film industry.

In the intervening two decades, between 1930 & 1950, at least 3 foreign nationals and many Indians from other regions in India directed Tamil Movies. Of the Foreign Nationals who directed Tamil movies in the period years, Ellis R. Dungan, the Irish American, is worth mentioning here in detail.

Ellis Roderick Dungan

Before we discuss about Ellis Dungan, we must talk about Manik Lal Tandon of Bombay, a graduate in Film Making from University of Southern California, USA, who directed many Tamil movies. Tandon has directed many Tamil films such as Bama Vijayam (1934), Baktha Nandanar (1935), Dumbachari (1935), Yayathi (1938), Arundhathi (1943), Rajarajeswari (1944) & Deivaneethi (1947).


An Ad for the film Yayathi in the magazine Dina Mani Varsha Malar 1938 PC: From the archives of TCRC

Both Ellis Dungan & Michael Omalov were Tandon’s peers in the USA and he invited them over to Calcutta where Tandon was directing Gemini’s Tamil film ‘Nandanar’. There they got introduced, through Tandon, to a film producer, Marudhachalam Chettiar, who was making Sathi Leelavathi. Tandon recommended that Dungan be hired to direct Sathi Leelavathi as Tandon was busy with Nandanar. Thus Dungan, made his directorial debut with Sathi Leelavathi  (1936). This very film was also the debut film of five people, who became stalwarts of Tamil Screen, M.G.R, M.K.Radha, T.S.Baliah, K.A.Thangavelu & N.S.Krishnan.

Dungan directed four films with M.S. as the heroine. But the pinnacle of his directorial success was through the Tamil Films “Sakunthalai” (1940) and “Meera” (1945), both starring M.S. Subbulakshmi, still considered as classics of Tamil Screen. He also directed films such as Iru Sahotharargal (1936), Seemanthini (1936), Ambikapathi (1937), KaLamegham (1940), Sakunthalai (1940), Surya Puthri (1941), Dasi Penn (1943), Meera (1945), Manthiri Kumari (1950), Ponmudi (1950).


Dungan directing MKT & Santhanalakshmi in Ambikapathy


M.S.Subbulakshmi & husband Sadasivam with Ellis Dungan on the sets of Sakuntalai (1940) PC: unknown

As per Randor Guy, “He was a brilliant film technician equally at home with the movie camera, lights, editing tools, screenwriting, make-up, direction and more. To this day, he is admired for his incredible achievements and his mastery over the movie camera was one of his extraordinary assets. He studied the customs, rituals, rites, tradition, and beliefs of the period of the film he was making. As he did not know Tamil he insisted in involving himself heart and soul in the picture from the day he was engaged. He took active part in every session of the story discussion, film treatment, and the final screenplay of his films with his writers and assistants. He had every word translated into English and typed in double space paper sheets for his study.”

As per an Article by S.Muthiah that featured in The Hindu Metro Plus in January 2002, Dungan stayed, during most of his stay in India, at the Spencer Hotel that was to become the Ambassador,. The hotel was within the then Ameer Bagh palace of the Nawab of Arcot. This property eventually became part of the Indian Overseas Bank property and was pulled down in 1987.

‘Manthiri Kumari’ (1950), which was penned by M. Karunanidhi, was the last Project in India by Dungan. He returned to U.S.A after that, at the insistence of his wife. In his long 15 years stint with Tamil Screen, he introduced many a Hollywood technique to the Tamil cinema, particularly in make-up & cinematography. Dungan was too forward for his times in India to feature a kissing scene in the thirties. He also was the first to use ‘trolley shot’ till date called Dungan Trolley.

But he made few visits after that in connection with jungle based films such as ‘The Jungle’ (1952), Harry Black and the Tiger (1958) & ‘Tarzan goes to India’ (1962). Thereafter his last visit to India was in 1994 when he was honored for his great contributions to Tamil Films.


Dungan with M.S and Sadasivam during his last visit to India in 1994. PC:

Ellis Dungan passed away at Wheeling, West Virginia in 2001 at his ripe age of 93. Karan Bali, an alumnus of The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), with specialization in Film Direction (1992), had made a notable Documentary on Dungan titled “An American in Madras”.

Michael Omalov

Michael Omalov directed only one Tamil Movie “Navayuvan” (1936) which had locations shot in London in such early times. Noted Carnatic Musician V.V.Satagopan debuted as hero in ‘Nava Yuvan’. Omalov returned to London even before the film was completed. Thus he was a one-film celebrity with that unique USP of shooting at London. It is learnt that Omalov went at large while the shot progressed in London & the producers of the film, Hassandas of Kishinchand Chellarams, reported of this desertion to Scotland Yard. Later they found a parting Note of Omalov that he had to leave, as his mother was seriously ill. He actually returned to USA to later join Ford Motors at Detroit as the Head of their Photography Dept.


Italian cinematographer & filmmaker, T.Marconi, who lived in Madras those days, directed the Film ‘Vimochanam’ (1939). As per Randor Guy, the film dealt with Prohibition as inspired by Rajaji who published a pro-prohibition magazine titled ‘Vimochanam’.

William J. Moylan

As per Ashokamithran in his book, another American, William J. Moylan, played a pivotal role in Tamil film world. He was general manager of Vasan’s Gemini Studio & brought management skills to the operations.

Many others…..

As for the very many non Tamil speaking Directors who directed Tamil Films, they were Bengalis, Gujaratis, Parsis, Konkinis, Maharashtrians, Punjabis & even a Kashmiri, as these names, alphabetically, suggest: Acharya, Aralkar Kabuli Sahib, Ardeshir Irani, Arshadrai Mehta, B.Y.Aldekar, Baburao Phendharkar, Bhagwan Dada, Bomman Irani, D.S.Kotnis, H.L.N.Simha, H.S.Mehta, Jiten Bannerji, Keshav Rao Dhaibar, Mama Shinde, Manik Lal Tandon, Mitradas, Nandalal Jaswantlal, Nannubhai Vakil, Narayan Deware, Praful Ghosh, Prem Chetna, Ramji Bai Arya, Raza Wahab Kashmiri, Sarvottam Badami, Sundar Rao Nadkarni. V.Shantharam, Virendra Desai.

The famous Hindi Film Music Director C.Ramachandra was also the music director for the Tamil movies “Jayakkodi” (1940) and “Vana Mohini” (1941). Similarly, the noted Hemant Kumar too co-teamed as Music Director along with Rama Rao in “Kanavane Kan kaNda Deivam” (1955). These show how the talents in film music too flowed from North to South

Kanavane Kankanda Deivam.jpg

A still from the film Kanavane Kan KaNda Deivam PC: From the archives of TCRC

The annals of Tamil film industry’s period years is sure to bear these names, who were Talents from Cross-border & Cross-cultures, in indelible ink, for their immense & invaluable contributions to the early Tamil Film Industry!

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