The Enchanting Kishore Kumar

I am sure most Indians or for that matter, people of Indian origin who follow the music of Bombay would know of him, but it is my guess that most focus on his songs, otherwise passing him off as a maverick, or an eccentric recluse, at best. He was actually a very charming, intelligent, and interesting person, as I discovered, after reading a couple of his biographies recently. So, I thought I should jot down a little bit of what I gleaned, i.e., on the less talked about aspects of Kishore. One thing I am sad about is that I never got to attend any of his spectacular stage shows or Kishore nites as they were termed, they would have been quite entertaining, for sure. So, let me start by telling you something you may find hard to believe, Kishore was initially quite scared of getting on stage. Would you believe that he insisted on singing from the shadows or as in his first performance, in the shadow of Sunil Dutt, much like it the movie scene in Padosan with the song - Mere Samne Wali?

Abhas Kumar Ganguly’s i.e., Kishore’s trip to superstardom in the tinsel world, and his team up with his illustrious brother Ashok Kumar is a lively story. Even though his antics, later on, were much talked about, Kishore was actually quite a nervous character and a virtual loner most of the time. But he did have his gang of music enthusiasts and among them, he was a blast. Ashok Kumar tried to make an actor out of the young lad, but when facing the camera (in films) as a gardener in Ziddi, he simply panicked and ran away. It was also in Ziddi (1964) that he sang for the first time, a Ghazal for Dev Anand. Interestingly he went on to act in some 102 films, with most people calling him a natural actor, so much so that Hrishikesh Mukerji had planned to cast him in the lead for Anand, even writing the script to suit Kishore.

But well, you may not know this, Kishore appeared on the Anand set with a shaved head forcing Mukerji (another version states that Kishore’s gatekeeper sent back an irate Mukerji who had come to discuss the project) to cancel the shoot and replace him with Rajesh Khanna. Kishore explained many years later that he hated acting, and wanted to be nothing more than a singer. He explains that all the tomfoolery was only to get out of acting, but well, in a way all that backfired and he became a good comedian! As Dev Anand mentions in his autobiography, Kishore was always an enigma.

Kishore took to a serious career in singing only after acting issues with producers. At that juncture, his first wife Ruma Devi had suggested he cut down on acting assignments, especially as some of his films were not doing too well. The big leap came with Aradhana, propelling him into a busy musical career, which resulted in him singing some 2,905 mesmerizing numbers! Yeah, there was a silly Malayalam song too in that list, it was “ABCD Chettan KD, Aniyanu pedi” (actually not as atrocious as you would imagine, when it comes to pronunciation since it had a lot of Hindi lines in it).

As they say, there is always a method to his madness, and a classic example is how he used to study the actor of the song carefully before he recorded it, to make sure the song really matched up with the character. Who really does those things these days, in fact, most don’t even know what the character is or for that matter who the actor is! The life of the song is in the mood it creates and Kishore insisted that he understood it well in advance, not just the film scene or the situation, but also the character of the actor playing the role. RD Burman used to mention that Kishore always imbibed the persona of the actor, even the walk, the talk, and the mannerisms for a few days during the recordings.

People remember Kishore for his yodeling, something he introduced in Bollywood. Both Kishore and his brother Anoop had studied the works of Swiss singer Tex Morton and the Australian Jimmy Rodgers for many years, before perfecting the yodeling style. Though Anoop reached nowhere in his singing career, Kishore excelled at it. And that was how Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo became his signature yodel! Brilliant yodeling hits followed, Zindagi Ek Safar Hai Suhana (Andaz), Bhor Aayee Gaya Andhiyara (Bawarchi), Ye Sham Mastani (Kati Patang), and many more. Dev Anand states that he always encouraged it, stating that “It sounded like the cry of a solitary voice in the loneliness of the hills, a cry for romance. Kishore was also fascinated with the Israeli singer and entertainer Chaim Topol, and seemingly saw his movie ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ more than a hundred times.

Kishore it appears studied the nuances of western music, and took pains to understand complex compositions of classics such as Mozart, and the styles of maestros such as Elvis and Frank Sinatra! Fascinating tidbits jump out from his recording sessions, how Lata and Asha would insist on Kishore being kept out of the recording rooms during their parts, simply because he made them laugh uncontrollably during rehearsals. He did see sides others did not, like how he got Hema Malini to sing a Bengali song Gun Gun Gun Kore. Asha would always say that it was Kishore who drove her to such heights, making her take risks and going up the scale at times, well beyond the original plan, only because her duet partner Kishore had done it in the previous stanza!

Some might wonder how a popular singer who produced so many hits and commanded a good price was perpetually in financial difficulties, well it had to do with his passion for producing films, and though he did not quite have that box office knack, many of them were good. But the fact that they left him penniless made Kishore a bitter man most of the time.

We saw at the outset that he had this incredible stage fright, but also that he went on to become one of the greatest stage entertainers. Kishore Kumar nites were much talked about and ever-popular, and in those days when they did not use technical wizardry and pyrotechnics. Performers had to get the audience on their feet using their own skills and indeed, it was a tough act. Melody, mimicry, tomfoolery, and of course yodeling, interspersed with some brilliant singing and play-acting took him to entertaining heights. One of his signature techniques was to start a song without music and let the orchestra catch up, unlike singers today who need to start with the right chord!

But what you did not know was that in his early days, he had recording studios cleared of bystanders since he could not tolerate anybody staring at him! Can you imagine that he wanted to be blindfolded at times so that he would be to himself in the recording room? Actually, the first time he went on stage was at Calcutta, to start a series of Kishore Kumar nites, and he actually backed out, joining the troupe on stage only at the very last moment, eventually starting his stage career with a composition of his own, done impromptu on the spot! Sunil Dutt explains that he took Kishore along to entertain the Jawans at Ladakh once and Kishore refused to come on stage. At this point, Sunil suggested that he go in front and Kishore sing in the background (much like they did later in Padosan), but then they found that there was no curtain behind which Kishore could hide. Sunil then suggested that Kishore stand in his shadow and as the songs progressed, Sunil stepped out leaving Kishore exposed. Initially, the singer panicked, but then continued on, gaining confidence. Slowly he got the stage fear out of his system and became a superlative performer. Kishore studied Danny Kay the Hollywood actor and it was after watching him that Kishore molded himself as a complete stage entertainer later on in life.

A photo of the mantelpiece at his home shows many photographs of Vivekananda, his mother, Virgin Mary, Ganesha, and Marlon Brando’s large still from Godfather. That was a surprise. Why Brando?? Seems Gary Cooper was his favorite actor and Marlon Brando was his idol. In fact, a meeting between Brando and Kishore had also been planned. But it was not to happen, for in that very year, 1987, Kishore passed away.

Back to the singing career of Kishore - After coming out of his Saigal fixation, Kishore finally found his own style, thanks to SD Burman and Dev Anand. Interestingly SDB heard Kishore singing while at Ashok’s house in order to discuss the film Mashal and hearing Kishore, asked him to forget Saigal and start singing in his own voice. Not only did he just say it, but decided to help Kishore mold his voice over several years. It was Dev Anand who help catapult to the top of the charts, with his songs tuned by SD and the trio Dev-SDB-Kishore delivered many hits while Kishore became well known as Dev’s voice.

Dev Anand says - After he became a star-actor, and the artist in him grew in great measure, Kishore never sang for anybody except for me, barring a few exceptions. Whenever I needed him to sing for me, he was ready to play Dev Anand in front of the microphones in the recording studios. He always asked me in what particular way I wanted to perform the song on the screen, so that he could modulate and style his singing accordingly. And I would always say, 'Do it with all the pep you want, and I shall follow your way.' There was that kind of rapport between the two of us.

But curiously Kishore got stuck for a while as a straight romantic singer and continued with his comedic roles and films, as an actor, nevertheless continuing with his daily Riyaz with his harmonium, meticulously. That was around the time when his problems with the IT department started. After the film Padosan, his style of comedy fell by the wayside and Kishore no longer had the luxury of twin careers, he was forced to focus on his voice. Adding misery, disagreements with his wife Ruma Ghosh resulted in her leaving him and going back to Calcutta. Soon enough, after Chalti ka Naam Ghadi, he married the ailing Madhubala. Her surgery at London did not pan out and upon their return, the relationship descended into gloom, squabbling and pathos. Door Gagan ki Chaon Mein flopped, taxmen came after him and his finances were in shambles. The tax authorities pounced on Kishore who was already broke. Ashok had to pay the Rs 25,000/- deposit, in order to avoid bigger issues.

In 1968, Kishore once again came across SDB after many years and the latter suggested he focus on his voice. In 1969, SDB roped him in for Aradhana, for a singing comeback and in the process, Kishore built up a rapport with RDB who was assisting papa SDB. Their tweaking of the song Roop Tara mastana created an everlasting memory for the audience. His partnership with Rajesh Khanna blossomed and many memorable numbers ensued. Finally, he had his voice, that special brightness, his price and his place in the Bollywood film factory. Time went by, things changed - Khanna went out and Amitabh Bachchan came in. Kishore hits tuned by RDB and Gulzar followed with wonderful regularity.

One incident I always remember is his absence from the radio waves during the Emergency years. I missed him sorely and only recently did I lay my hands on the Shaw commission report which provided many details of the incident.

It all started with the discussions to create a TV show 'Geeton Bhari Shaam' with many film personalities praising Sanjay Gandhi’s 20-point program, for which a team from Delhi had come to Bombay in Jan 1976. VC Shukla was the minister for I&B and he was represented in the above meeting by Joint secretary CB Jain. Kishore Kumar did not attend the meeting and GP Sippy the producer suggested that Jain contact Kishore directly to persuade him, as Kishore was playing truant and refusing to help with the propaganda work. When Jain called Kishore and pressed him, stating that they could come and meet Kishore at his home, Kishore replied curtly that he was unwell with a heart ailment and that he did not wish to sing on the radio or TV. Jain was miffed and considered this grossly discourteous behavior. Around the same time Kissa Kursi Ka had been trashed and Aandhi had been banned.

Returning to Delhi, Jain reported the incident and Kishore’s noncooperation to his boss SMH Burney. Burney decided that Kishore be banned from the AIR and Doordarshan, that none of his songs be played on these channels and that none of his films be shown on TV. They also decreed that all sales of gramophone records with his songs be frozen. HMV agreed and also decided to stop future song recordings with Kishore, but Polydor did not do so. Burney then noted in the files that this was having a desired effect on the film industry and that others quickly toed the line stating - these measures “had a tangible effect on film producers”.

After a while, whether due to pressure from his peers and others in the industry or of his own volition, Kishore sent a letter to the ministry a couple of months later in July, where he agreed to cooperate with the government. It also appears that others interjected on his behalf and we can read about the visit undertaken by Dev Anand to Delhi to meet Shukla, Dev’s attempts to get Nargis to interject on behalf of the film people etc. Eventually, in view of this “undertaking in which Kishore had agreed to cooperate with the government,” Jain wrote, “we may lift the ban and watch the degree of co-operation that he extends.”

Facing the Shaw commission inquiry much later, after all the damage was done, VC Shukla who had formally approved Burney’s actions, accepted responsibility for the regrettable misuse of authority. I used to wonder what happened to these characters ever since and read that Sayed Muzaffar Hussain Burney lived on to a ripe age of 92, passing away in 2014, serving as a governor in various states, then as the chairman of the minority commission and also as the chancellor of the JMI University. Jain seems to have continued in the bureaucracy, working with tourism and so on. VC Shukla kept changing alliances and parties and passed away in 2013. Strange are the ways of fate, I guess! Kishore on the other hand continued to suffer through several IT raids and had to do a number of stage shows to pay his tax dues.

One of my all-time favorites and a particularly fascinating Kishore number is Yeh Jeevan Hai from Piya ka Ghar, a soft, melodic and intimate piece. Imagine, he sang it without a rehearsal, as he did often in the old days, sitting in a high back chair, with an unmoving body but gesticulating with his hands and expressive in his face! Zindagi ka Safar, Badi Sooni (sung after SDB recovered from a heart attack) and Mera Jeevan Kora Kagez, were superb numbers, those which remind me of my college days and our resident Kishore – VK Haridas - who sang them with such aplomb. Wo Sham Kuch Ajeeb and Koi Hum dam are perhaps the most satisfying, though. A long gap of mediocre songs followed till Chookar mere man ko, Mere Naina Sawan Bha do, Hume Tumse Pyar and Chalte Chalte came about.

Mechanical toys, dolls, real and dummy dogs, mannequins and brooding alone at his home took up most of Kishore’s spare time. Another short-lived marriage with Yogeeta Bali followed, with arguments over her using his toilet, something he could not tolerate and later her overbearing mother-in-law Geetha Bali, an actress from yesteryears. Finally, in 1978 that Leena Chandavarkar entered his life and balanced it, but it was perhaps a wee bit late. They got married in 1980, his fourth marriage and had a son Sumit.

Kishore never drank or smoked, but chewed fresh betel leaves, plucked from his own garden. His secret hiding room, his glass door which guests frequently banged into, the all-around closed-circuit TV etc. are all the stuff of legends. What most people did not know was that Kishore went to that hidden room to practice, and I read that he would spend days to get a song right before he went to the recording studio. He loved fish and mutton curries, fried food like pakoras and bhajjis, while kheer and rabdi were his favorite desserts. He hated parties, loved watching Hitchcock and horror movies and did talk to his trees and the many pet dogs and cats, often.

Kishore always wanted to get away from Bombay – Once he told Pritish Nandy - Who can live in this stupid, friendless city where everyone seeks to exploit you every moment of the day? Can you trust anyone out here? Is anyone trustworthy? Is anyone a friend you can count on? I am determined to get out of this futile rat race and live as I’ve always wanted to. In my native Khandwa, the land of my forefathers. somehow, thanks to peculiar circumstances, I was persuaded to act in the movies. I hated every moment of it and tried virtually every trick to get out of it. I muffed my lines, pretended to be crazy, shaved my head off, played difficult, began yodeling in the midst of tragic scenes, told Meena Kumari what I was supposed to tell Bina Rai in some other film – but they still wouldn’t let me go. I screamed, ranted, went cuckoo. My shirts flying off, my trousers falling off, my wig coming off while I’m running from one set to the other. Very often I would mix up my lines and look angry in a romantic scene or romantic in the midst of a fierce battle. It was terrible and I hated it. But who cared? They were just determined to make me a star, because I was dadamoni’s brother. People bore me. Film people particularly bore me. I prefer talking to my trees.

Dev summarizes Kishore’s character admirably - He was a great funster, though this was not apparent to the outside world. Since we were both childlike, we made jolly good friends. He often confided in me, like a child in his elder brother. Before he got married to his first wife, he asked me if marriage was a good idea. I told him, 'If you like the idea, and are in a mood for it, it is the best thing in the world." But Kishore remained an enigma to me, a very loveable enigma. A great singer who never learnt singing professionally from a master, a great comic actor who never went to a training school, a reasonably good director who conceived and directed his own movies, having never been an assistant to any director.

In the end, money became his craze, and overwork followed, if only for the thrill of counting wads and wads of money. Perhaps it was looming insecurity. It was bound to have a detrimental effect and in 1982 he had a massive heart attack at Calcutta where his stage shows had started. Advised a bypass, Kishore turned it down and continued singing and making movies. In 1987 Ashok Kumar, his elder brother and the mainstay in his life passed away. A few months later in Oct 87, Kishore had his second attack, which took away his life, he was aged just 58. There is continued talk about his eccentricities, but they are not really worth talking about, the man, the singer was much above all those silly antics. He was a man who sang from his heart.

Dev Anand concludes - And finally, one day, without giving any warning, he was gone, suddenly. I stood by his dead body in his bedroom all alone, closed my eyes and silently sang all the songs he had sung for me, in a deep moment of sorrow. Then I rushed back to my car outside, and cried and cried, crying all the way back home.


Kishore Kumar – Method in Madness – Derek Bose

Kishore Kumar – The definitive biography – Kishore Valicha

Shah Commission Interim report – Volume 2

A lovely site with all kinds of Kishore trivia and see a lovely video of him recording a song


The story of Dungan Ayya

An American filmmaker in Madras 1935-1950

A few days back, after Dr Swati Mohan’s involvement with the Perseverance landing on Mars, our President Biden congratulating her, said – what an incredible honor this is - you Indian descent Americans have taken over the country…you, my vice president, my speechwriter Vinay, I tell you what, thank you, you guys are incredible… But this is not about them, I am going to take you back to a time when an American ruled the directorial roost in erstwhile Madras, a bloke named Ellis R Dungan…

The first world war remained a memory and the world was healing at large, though the scene in Europe was still volatile during the early 1930’s.  In turbulent India, the anti-British civil disobedience movement had been launched with vigor and Gandhiji had arrived. In 1939, it went topsy turvy as Britain announced India’s entry into the Second World war and Jinnah persuaded the Muslims to adopt the two-nation theory. The British Indian Army became the largest volunteer force, numbering 2,500,000 men during the war. Later, in 1942, the quit India movement was launched just as the war clouds loomed low in the Eastern horizon with the Japanese and INA forces were zooming to the Assam borders.

Madras however remained calm during the 1930’s and was still far away from the eyes of the many storms. The presidency as it was called then was facing an Anti-Brahmin movement after the terrible 1921 Moplah rebellion in Malabar. Following the appointment of C Rajagopalachari in 1937 as the chief minister, Congress gained strength and the public were wresting with the unpopular imposition of Hindi. Nevertheless, Madras continued to bustle with activity, as industry thrived, reforms were enacted, the railways were being extended and literacy was improving. The All-India Radio had by now established a station in Madras and commenced a radio service in 1938.

Cinemas became popular in the 1930s and 1940s well after the first South Indian silent film, Keechaka Vadham, was released in 1916. The first regional sound films were made in 1931 and the first Malayalam talkie Balan was canned in 1938. There were film studios at Coimbatore, Salem, Madras and Karaikudi. Most early films were made in Coimbatore and Salem but from the 1940s onwards, Madras began to emerge as the epicenter of film production.

The scene changed in 1934 when Madras got its first sound studio when Srinivasa Cinetone was founded by Narayanan. The second sound studio to come up in Madras was Vel Pictures, started by M. D. Rajan on Eldams Road in the Dunmore bungalow, which belonged to the Raja of Pithapuram.  The era of sound talkies had started. It all took off with the arrival of an American, who actually strayed into the veritable mix and stayed. In the end it is just a story of his discipline, common sense and professionalism which he cultivated into the haphazard ways of the south which were hitherto based on simply conducting and filming stage dramas. This is his tale, his tribulations and a study of his gung-ho (unthinkingly enthusiastic and eager), attitude at work, finding a solution to most problems and innovating as he went along. Come to think of it, he was perhaps one of the earliest practitioners of the Indian Jugad.

That was Ellis R. Dungan from Ohio, whose love affair with Cinema started when he bought his first box camera to take pictures for his school yearbook. Wanderlust took a hold of him even before college when he drifted on to Spain and Paris, getting exposed to the intrigues of photography in Paris and finally deciding that education is a better path. Back in the US, he enrolled at the University of Southern California in 1932 in the newly established Cinema Department. After deciding that a pathway to the glitz and glamor of Hollywood was a reasonable aim, he made Los Angles his home. His buddy at that time was another up-and-coming movie cinematographer Mike Omalev.

It was at this juncture, that the two youngsters met a very interesting man who was at USC learning cinematography and somewhat well set in Hollywood doing bit parts in South Asian themed movies. That was Munnay or Manik Lal Tandon. Munnay introduced Mike and Ellis to other Hollywood producers and directors, got them short job stints and collaborated with them in some film projects, becoming thick friends, along the way. In 1934, as their course was winding up, Munnay decided to return home to India. The Tandon family had agreed to finance a studio for the ‘Hollywood returned’ son and the youngster wanted to make proper Indian movies for export, showcasing the real India.

Munnay asked his two friends if they would be interested in tagging along. They agreed having nothing better to do and so, the three friends went around shopping for gadgets and stuff to do their filming in India. Well-meaning friends asked the two boys to make sure they collected a lot of diverse scenery and live footage from India, which they could later license or supply for future Hollywood films. The two Yankees planned to make it out in India for six months. Though Omalev returned quickly, Ellis Dungan perhaps found his calling in India and went on to stay for all of fifteen years. There are plenty of short articles about Duggan, and there is a nice documentary by Karan Bali too on the public domain, but I wanted the readers and those film buffs out there to know a little bit more. This is Duggan’s story.

As I mentioned, Tandon had proceeded ahead and was supposed to get the tracks set for the arrival of his friends. The Americans however had to spend a few months in London and somewhere in Yugoslavia (where Mike was originally from) before they could get a passage and the visas to Bombay. Finally, they arrived in Feb 1935, and disembarked at the Bombay docks, only to note that they had customs issues. Tandon was nowhere to be seen, but he had sent a friend Sunny who helped them out, and the youngsters had to fork out an astronomical $35 as customs duties for the photographic equipment they carried (a hand-cranked camera and some lighting accessories). Left with just $15 between them, they roomed at the Victoria Terminus in Bombay, and got bitten by mosquitoes for the very first time. As they wandered around Bombay taking in the various sights, getting alarmed at blood on the streets only to be told laughingly by Sonny that it was betel juice, and wondering about their bleak future, Tandon’s wire arrived asking them to stay put. He too was broke and bereft of any plans, but assured them that money was soon going to arrive, into his coffers.

Sunny explained to Dungan that the Tandon studio project had collapsed and Tandon had no other go than to take the first project which was offered, from distant Madras. Tandon had rushed Southbound, to take on the direction of two Tamil films! One of them was Bhakta Nandanar starring Sundarambal. Tandon had been busy selecting actors and setting things up, and was making a trip to Calcutta for the filming, but he assured the two boys that he would send them money and train tickets to Calcutta! After spending a while mulling about the hopelessness of the situation, Dungan and Omalev decided to take the plunge and help their friend Tandon out. Meanwhile, the stay in Bombay introduced them to tropical life, rats, more mosquitoes and of course super spicy Goan Vindhaloos.

At long last, some money and two 3rd class tickets to Calcutta arrived. A clickety clackety ride in a jampacked train followed, and the two guys were soon disembarking at the Howrah station in steamy Calcutta. Tandon and his team met them, due apologies were tendered and the very next day, they all started working on Bhakta Nandanar, it being an auspicious day! That was how Dungan Ayya started with his first Tamil film for the Asanda film company.

Sundarambal proved to be quite adept and her two burly uncles made sure she was guarded at all times, for ‘the days were bad’ and her stellar reputation had to be guarded! The film was completed in Calcutta, launched with great fanfare in Madras and proved to be a great hit. Tandon had also learned that some of the well-heeled at Madras wanted to set up film studios, so he decided to hang around Madras and encouraged his two American friends to do likewise. Madras was a bustling cosmopolitan metropolis even then, with 750,000 people.

In fact, Tandon had previously directed Bama Vijayam in 1934, had now completed Bhakta Nandanar and also had an offer to direct Sati Leelavathi, but as he also obtained an offer to do a Hindi film “Shame of the Nation’, he suggested to the producer that his Hollywood returned pal Ellis Dungan to direct the Tamil movie. Since Tandon had by then picked up a solid reputation, and the director had Hollywood experience, the suggestion was accepted by the producer. Mike Omalev meanwhile, became a production manager for Asandas, and also took on the direction of some parts of the movie Modern Youth, in London. While there, he heard that his mother was unwell in the US and decided to return home. That was the end of Mike’s short sojourn in India, and he went back and joined the Ford Motor Company.

Dungan’s stay and work at Madras is replete with many tales, some funny, some hair-raising and some incredibly interesting. He was to see and experience all kinds of new and alien methods, like how Ramamurthi the studio manager cleaned all 15,000 feet of exposed film by hand, inch by inch, or how the sets became a big family lodge, with people taking eating and napping as filming went on, or his entering a temple clad in a dhoti and sans upper garments, dark makeup etc passing off as a local cinematographer (the Pujari figured it out and a shudhhi kalasham had to be arranged to clean up the pollution created by the low-class firangi!). Outdoor shooting was also something he pioneered.

The Sati Leelavathi experience was to place Dungan among the top echelon of directors in those days and as you can imagine, he went on to direct some 17 movies and a number of documentaries. Now a clever guy might jump up and shout – That was MGR’s first movie! Indeed, it was, and MGR debuted under Duggan’s direction as Inspector Rangaiah! MGR, who according to Dungan, did not initially understand the nuances of film acting, performed aggressively as though he was on stage until Dungan convinced him to deliver his lines naturally.

Tandon, his friend, was not one to lead a charmed life though, and soon enough, the busy schedule caught up with Munnay, so also debilitating multiple sclerosis. Illness forced Tandon to move back home to Kanpur and before long, he was lost to the film world. Now there was just one person left in that group of three friends, just Ellis Duggan, alone and lonesome in Madras. Anyway, as we saw, Sati Leelavathi had attained cult status and Dungan became an in-demand director.

Several new filmmaking techniques introduced by Dungan such as the dancing girl as seen by the inebriated protagonist, the character’s inner fear depicted by his twitching fingers and feet were all techniques which not only helped the actors to emote, but also showcased Dungan's talent. He was perhaps the first to introduce the concept of rehearsals before the shot and also the method of using  written scripts with dialog on one side and the corresponding action on the other!

Dungan purchased an old Dodge which became the first camera car, and we can see that he introduced rails for the movement of cameras and nets to soften the lighting of the character or object. Just imagine, a director who knew no Tamil, managing his team with simply gestures and actions, assisted by a few bad translators, those were the days. Over time, he did pick up a smattering of working Tamil! Dungan then directed Seemanthini and took a trip to Burma, only to catch Malaria and amoebic dysentery, and get bedridden for weeks.

Back in Madras, Iru Sahodargal followed, shot at Bombay, which became another hit film. Margaret his stepsister came visiting and this was when Duggan traveled all around India, taking in the sights and sounds of Delhi, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Himalayas, and Calcutta. His third movie Ambikapathi was shot in Calcutta, which also became a blockbuster. Some years later, he directed MS Subbulakshmi for Sakunthalai and had many a fascinating story to recount as well as his deep admiration and respect for MS. That film had 24 songs; can you believe it?

An interesting story is about Kalki Sadasivam, her husband, whose daughter from his previous marriage and this girl (not sure if it was Radha or Vijaya) used to bring along to the film sets the lion cub, which had originally been purchased for a film scene from the Madras Zoo and thereafter became a member of MS’s household. After the filming had been completed, the Zoo would not take it back and so it became Dungan’s pet eventually, and was housed at the Spencer’s hotel, where he stayed! In the beginning, the little cub was like a small kitten, but as it grew, it started to chase people around Spencer’s and eventually the police intervened. A local raja apparently came to the rescue and took it to his summer estate at Bangalore. So much for MS’s lion cub!

The interplay between MS and Dungan can take a whole article, but they got along well. In fact, Dungan once had to provoke her and puncture her ego to get her to provide a rousing performance! That was another hit movie and one where he introduced scantily clad cabaret dancers from the Connemara hotel to do a scene for which the press lambasted him. The dance of the angels, in Sakunthalai was performed by Anglo Indian girls. The picturization of the angels emerging from the lake was shot in reverse, i.e. making them gracefully enter the waters and then reversing it so that it looked as though they were emerging from the water, yet another innovation of that era!

By then the busy director hired an assistant, Bill Moylan and moved out from Spencer’s to a house in Kilpauk. All this took place in the years leading up to the WWII, and as you can imagine, things changed a lot as the war clouds over Europe darkened and films which were being imported, got rationed.

Moylan went to work for Delhi to make documentaries while Duggan remained in Madras to do just the same at Madras. Film rationing was in place and most production work was halted. Many a documentary such as the one on Madras Guards was filmed by him, based on the Anglo-Indian regiment at Madras, which became a training film for all British and American troops coming to India. Interestingly, his assistant in those days was the very person I had once written about, the eminent Markus Bartley, the cinematographer of Chemeen!

Dungan was also involved in shooting documentaries of Gandhiji and his ashram, spinning yarn and the making of Khadi. And believe it or not, he was on assignment to make a movie covering the Jewish community in Cochin. The war dragged on, Madras went into panic mode when the Japanese planes buzzed through and created some nuisance, another story which I had narrated some months ago. The port was busy with ships coming in from Singapore and Burma and returning, an American rest camp had been established in Madras, and whatnot. Film production was at snail’s pace though Meera was on the floors and the American troops and nurses often trooped into Newtone studios where it was being shot by Dungan (MGR also had a bit part in it), just to hear MS sing! Appears MS had by this time picked up a smattering of spoken English from Dungan. Dungan enthusiastically narrates the fascinating trip taken by the team to shoot Meera across India, Agra, the golden triangle, the fantastic person MS was and so on.

As the great war wound down, Moylan got back, and troubles started with Hindu Muslim unrest, quite a bit of which was captured on film (wonder where they are now!) by the team. Dungan also made films on Jinnah and Gandhi, the Mountbatten’s, the 1947 independence celebrations, a very famous still picture of Nehru and many other contemporary events (Dungan mentions Nehru had no problems with flashlights, but Gandhiji abhorred it). In 1947, Dungan went back to the US hearing his mother was ill, but she recovered and then visiting Los Angeles, he met and married Alice Quimby, his first wife, and brought her back to India.

Later he was invited to film the events following the assassination of Gandhiji and to direct the film Ponmudi which became infamous for the first onscreen embrace. Again, getting struck down with Malaria, he recuperated in Yercaud, a place Alice took to. Time went by and by 1950, as Dungan was working on his last film Mantri Kumari (Which featured MGR and a script by M Karunanidhi) at Salem, Alice then working in the US consulate, made her mind clear that she wanted to get back to the USA. She had enough of her husband who was gone native and demanded that if Dungan wanted to save their marriage, he should leave the film midway and travel back. He did so with a heavy heart and so we see him back in Hollywood, circa 1950.

But then again, for some, life offers happy twists too, for in Hollywood, a producer named Bill Berke wanted ‘The Jungle’, filmed in India and decided to entrust Dungan with the task. Dungan gleefully took the trip back to Salem with Sundaram (Modern Theatre studios) responsible for the Indian parts and spent close to a year working on this project, but upon his return to Hollywood found that Alice had packed up and gone, filing for divorce. Dungan flew back to India, this time to work on Gunga Ram a TV series. Trips continued on a regular basis, over the next 8 years, but there were mostly wildlife-related film shoots. Next was the Tarzan film in 1962.

Eventually Dungan settled in Wheeling West Virginia and married Elaine Runner in 1964. Age was catching up and with his traveling now to less distant parts, India soon drifted to a memory. Dungan kept himself busy thereafter advising film-makers shooting films in India and making docudramas, historical documentaries, building a strong reputation as a maker of industrial films and documentaries. He lived at Wheeling West Virginia, from 1958 until his death. Elaine and Dungan did make a short tourist visit to India in the early 70’s.

His last visit in 1994 was by invitation from Madras where the entire film fraternity assembled to felicitate him. MS and Sadasivam were there, of course, so also the chief minister and many other dignitaries. The horde that turned up amazed Dungan for he never knew he was so revered and popular. MS Subbulakshmi honored Dungan by singing impromptu, a song from “Meera.” Later, meeting CM Jayalalitha accompanied by Rochelle Shah, he said – “Madras is the only place I know where a person can come back after 43 years and be welcomed wholeheartedly”.

Randor Guy the film authority, the mystery buff and historian whom I had referred to earlier (Alavander Case) was one among those who interviewed him in 1994. Interestingly many chapters of Dungan autobiography co-written with Barbara Smik, and summarized here, were actually penned by Dungan at Randor Guys request! Unfortunately, that year was also a tragic one for Dungan as Elaine passed away, leaving the old man alone. Rochelle Shah and actress and writer, a close friend of Dungan from Madras, who visited him in 1996 mentions how lonely he was and how he finally passed away in an old age home, to be survived by Christopher, his stepson.

Highlighting some films to complete this epoch, I can mention that Dungan worked in the field of Tamil films between 1936-50 making B&W 35mm films. His first film Sati Leelavathi featured MGR on debut, and he directed MGR again in a few other movies such as Iru sahodarangal, Jothi malar, Meera, Manthri Kumari etc, whereas Sakunthalai and Meera featured MS. We saw that he worked with Karunanidhi in Ponmudi and surprisingly, I saw a mention that Kamal Hasan too did a bit part as a small boy in one of Dungan’s films. And well, VN Janaki, MGR’s wife was also directed by Dungan in Sakuntalai, she was a dancer in Dushyantha’s court! Just imagine, three Madras CM’s - MGR, Karunanidhi, and Janaki had associated with Dungan!

Karan Bali made a nice documentary on Dungan which you can view on youtube. He summarizes Dungan’s contributions succinctly in a NY times interview - “I definitely felt he played an important role in helping to technically develop the then fledgling Tamil film industry and that had to be acknowledged and documented,” says Mr. Bali. “For example, sequences like visually showing Ambikapathy’s life flashing before his eyes as he is about to be executed, or the transition of the young Meera to a grown-up Meera during the song ‘Nandabala,’ or even using the day-for-night technique to make the sun a moon in ‘Manthiri Kumari’ – all these were great technical achievements for their time.” Mr. Dungan’s visual treatment, mobility of his camera, his frequent use of outdoor locales, his proper blocking of scenes and his strong female characters also made his films stand out, Mr. Bali said, even if the plots were nothing new.

Born in 1909, Ellis Dungan passed away in 2001, and I doubt if he ever forgot those days in Madras, ever. The epitaph on his tombstone rightly ends with – May the film fraternity remember him for his creativity…


A guide to adventure – Ellis R Dungan with Barbara Smik.
What is Tamil about Tamil cinema? - Stephen Putnam Hughes
And many thanks to Randor Guy (Madabhushi Rangadorai) and his inputs through various news articles – Guy is a walking, living encyclopedia!
An American in Madras – Documentary by Karan Bali 

pics - Wikimedia, thanks to owners & uploaders

There were many other foreigners in Madras such as Iranian Dinshaw K. Tehrani (sound), American Arthur Bradburn (sound), and French Paul Briquet (camera), but the one person I tried very hard to track down, but have been unsuccessful so far is the German emigre who was associated with the 1949 Malayalam film Velli Nakshatram – a person named Felix JH Beyse. If anybody has more information on Beyse, please do comment/contact me.