Karan Bali’s affectionate documentary An American in Madras, broadcast on Channel Four in October as part of a series of films about the Indian film industry, is an eye opener in many respects. It is a history that I had no knowledge of and makes one re-consider what we have been told and what has been historicised about Indian Cinema especially regional cinemas is tentative. This certainly ascertains the history of Indian cinema is still being written and that we need to contest historiographies, revising past historicising that relies on pedantic, monolithic, essentialist accounts. The story of American born Ellis R. Dungan who worked in the Tamil film industry for over fifteen years suggests South Indian Cinema was making substantial technical advances that ran parallel with and influenced the Bombay film industry.
Bali’s excavation and recognition of American director Ellis Dungan’s contribution to the technical, thematic and aesthetic development of Tamil Cinema is significant in three respects. Firstly, it points to a cultural exchange between Hollywood and the Indian film industry, a long lasting one, which creates a nonlinear disjuncture of cross pollination; a creative, cultural dialogue. Secondly, Bali rightly reclaims the work of Dungan, positioning him in the Tamil industry and emphasising his centrality in help promoting a new regional identity in the films he made while shaping the star image of popular singer/actress M. S. Subbulakshmi. Thirdly, Bali constructs a historical narrative based on past recollections, interviewing film historians, actors and friends who worked with Dungan, and contemporary Tamil film artists who also recognise Dungan’s considerable achievements.
Technical proficiency and professionalism are two themes that historians argue Dungan brought to the Tamil film industry at a time of growth. Bali’s approach narrates a tale about innovation, an increasingly popular way of looking at film histories. For instance, shooting on location and indoor tracking shots were stylistic innovations that Dungan helped to nurture in the several films he made. Perhaps most fascinating for me is Bali’s access to the Tamil films of the 1930s and 1940s, many of which appear to have been beautifully restored. If I am assuming many of these films have not officially been re-released to the film consumer on home media platforms then they should be as it is a rich cinematic past that should be accessible to all especially in an age of digital reincarnation and resurrection.