The Pioneers of Tamil Cinema




This week, we are looking at a particularly unique and rather fascinating figure in the world of Tamil cinema. Most people today, perhaps you included, would believe that someone came to Tamil Nadu from a different world, nearly 14,000 km away, and made a string of staggering and trendsetting films in 1930s to 1950s in — all without knowing the language! Allow us to introduce you to Ellis R. Dungan, an Ohio born Irish-American, who was active in the Tamil film industry in the 30s and 40s. 

While studying at South California University, Duncan became fast friends with people in his cohort who studied in the cinematography and production design department with him. One of them was Indian, M.L. Tandon, who played a vital role in Dungan’s career. Tandon, who himself went on to become a prominent filmmaker in South India during the 1930s and 40s, invited Dungan to India to work with him. His film BHAKTHA NANDANAR became the pathbreaking stepping stone for Dungan. 

He is believed to have filmed many portions on the absence of Tandon, although he wasn’t formally credited in the film for his work. Though he initially planned for his visit to India to last only six months, destiny had its say, and kept him active in the industry for over a decade — fifteen years, to be precise — and paved the way for him to establish a wide host of technical trends. He created a legacy of his own, and shaped the careers of many talented personalities of the industry.

Movies he directed in 1930-1940 included:

  • 1940: KALAMEGAM

SATHI LEELAVATHI was Dungan’s first official directorial venture. He came to the film itself in a rather peculiar sort of fashion. The film was offered to Tandon by Maruthachalam Chettiar, who was adamant that only he could be the right person to direct this film after the rousing success of BHAMA VIJAYAM. Tandon, on the other hand, was busy with a Hindi film being shot at Calcutta, and recommended his American friend to Chettiar. Chettiar, however, was rather reluctant to accept: he saw Dungan as inexperienced and young, and thought his lack of knowledge of the language would create huge roadblocks. Tandon, however, was insistent, and persuaded Chettiar that he was trained in Hollywood — and this did the trick! Hollywood, in many ways, was the magical word that proved his mettle. Chettiar was thus convinced, and the film was made.

Dungan began his remarkable journey with a bit of a bang with this debut film, which became a vital landmark in the Tamil Industry. It certainly helped that the film was also an enormous success commercially. It also, incidentally, holds the distinction of being first of its kind to be directed by a foreigner. The film, in its theme, dealt with the evils of alcoholism. 

The film didn’t just mark Dungan’s debut; it was responsible for introducing many others who went on to become stalwarts of the industry. M.G. Ramachandran, known popularly as MGR, made his film debut in this film in a minor role as a police inspector. MGR, as many of us know, went on to become one of the most celebrated heroes of the industry, not to mention a revolutionary political leader. Along with him the lead actors M.K. Radha, T.S. Baliah, N.S. Krishnan and M.R. Santhanalakshmi also made their debut. For S.S. Vasan, this was the first step on the road to stardom as a story writer for films; it is his novel — with the same name — that formed the basis for the film’s plot. Vasan would go on to carve a niche for himself as one of the most innovative filmmakers that India produced in its initial years of establishing its film industries. (Watch this space! We’ll return to his fascinating story in another iteration of our series.)


A still from the Movie SATHI LEELAVATHI featuring M.K. Radha, M.K. Mani and M.R.GNANAMBAL 

PC: From the archives of TCRC

AMBIKAPATHI was yet another feather on Dungan’s cap. The film ran for 52 weeks — a whole year! — And did extremely well at the box office. It was a stellar return to success for M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, better known as MKT, as well, after his film CHINTHAMANI. T.S. Baliah, an actor who was also part of Dungan’s debut film SATHI LEEELAVATHI, was retained in this film to play the villain. His performance was greatly praised for pulling it off with aplomb and panache. The talented Balaiah later went on to become famous as a versatile actor who was capable of performing in all kinds of roles — a man who could don many hats indeed. His unique style of dialogue delivery was particularly distinct, and greatly contributed to his success in his career in acting.


A still from the Movie AMBIKAPATHI featuring T.S. Baliah with his co-stars 

PC: From the archives of TCRC

With the huge success of CHINTHAMANI and AMBIKAPATHI — all in the same year, 1937, MKT earned the distinction of being the very first Superstar of Tamil cinema. This was nothing short of being crowned king of the industry! Besides acting, his other passion — singing — also took his career to great heights. Records containing his songs sold like hot cakes! Y.V.Rao and Dungan played a major part in the terrific start MKT got in what went on to be a truly prolific career.

The film also had people talking for other reasons: its dialogue, and some bold rather intimate scenes of the time had many heads turning. Dungan had hired a Tamil scholar, Elangovan, to script dialogue for the film, which turned out to be profoundly poetic — very new for Tamil cinema at the time! The move flung open a new trend in the world of writing for films. The line “Thookkam Un Kangalai Thazhuvattum Amaithi Un Nenjil Nilavattum”, spoken by the film’s hero, became very famous, and in fact, was used by many later. The lyricist Kannadasan, for instance, used the line in a song for his critically acclaimed film ALAYAMANI in 1961. 

Dungan conceptualised a scene where the hero winks at the heroine: which was, believe it or not, nothing short of revolutionary at the time. After this particular scene shot to popularity, MKT’s winks became a trademark mainstay of his acting style.

With SAKUNTHALAI, Dungan’s association with the famed classical vocalist M.S. Subbulakshmi, affectionately and popularly known simply as MS began. The film was produced under the banner Royal Talkie Distributors. MS and her husband, Sadasivam, who also wrote the screenplay for the film, were the producers.


A still from the Movie SAKUNTHALAI

PC: From the archives of TCRC

While MS played the titular role, G. N. Balasubramaniam, the famous Carnatic singer was roped in for the lead role opposite to her. Though the film was first offered to K. Subramaniyam to direct, Dungan was brought on board in his stead, as Subramaniyam was busy with prior commitments. The comedy duo of N.S. Krishnan and T.A. Maduram were included in the cast too. The film was received well and was immensely successful at the box office as well.

KALAMEGHAM was a biopic on a Tamil poet whose words were always believed to come true. Dungan reached out to a nadaswaram expert, T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai, to play the titular role. This ended up being the only film that this nadaswaram legend acted in throughout his career as an esteemed musician. Though the film didn’t require him to play the nadaswaram itself, he was asked to pretend to do so in a scene where he plays the instrument and walks around on the streets. This particular scene was, in fact, filmed only to satisfy his ardent fans — and to have better prospects at the box office!


An advertisement for the Film KALAMEGHAM


PC: From the archives of TCRC

Although the film itself didn’t do particularly well it is nonetheless remembered for being Rajarathanam’s sole movie appearance, and for some specific technical mastery that was inventively executed by Dungan. One scene in particular, where a village is shown being submerged by a sandstorm, was fascinatingly filmed using miniatures in a vacant beach area in Chennai — Besant Nagar. And all this personally by Dungan himself. It is said that people stood and clapped for this scene in theatres.

[To be continued] We’ll be back next week with more hidden treasure from the history of Tamil cinema. Stay tuned!

About the Author:

V.V. Prasad is a Electronics and Communication Engineer based from Chennai. He is currently involved in the role of a Researcher and Archivist in THE CINEMA RESCOURCE CENTRE.
He takes care of the non film materials like Photographs, Magazines, Lobby Cards, Song books etc of the archives. Cataloguing them and digitizing them are part of his current work.
His interests and passion lie on the research of Cinema particularly South Indian Cinema.

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