Rare 1930s Tamil Film and 1950s Padmini Dance Footage from Ellis Dungan’s Collection

Thursday, November 29, 2012
Hiding in the most unlikely of places, the West Virginia State Archives in the US, are documentary films and video footage shot/directed by the late Ellis Dungan, an American who made a number of Tamil films in South India from 1935-1950. In the collection are two incredibly-rare videos with footage I assume has not been available publicly until now.  The first video is “Inside India,” a documentary on South Indian village life that has an extended stage dance sequence by "Travancore Sisters" Padmini and Lalitha. The second video is a compilation containing footage Ellis took while directing the Tamil films Sati Leelavati (1936), Seemanthani (1936), Iru Sahodarargal (Two Brothers, 1936), and Ambikapathi (1937), and it reveals rare images of film stars and technicians and gives a visual glimpse into how Tamil films were made in the 1930s.  The thanks for unearthing these videos goes to a wonderfully-knowledgeable online contact, Sreenivas Paruchuri, who sent these links to me.  Thank you! 

Inside India - Featuring a Padmini/Lalitha Dance (at 7:39)!

This documentary at first appears to be just a montage of scenes from village life in South India with a staid, explanatory voiceover. But at 7:39, an audience and stage appear as the voiceover explains, “There are numerous dramatic troupes that travel from village to village in Southern India and evening performances are given in the streets.  Here the people in the village witness one of the most popular musical dramas, Mathura Veeran, the story of Princess Bommi being wooed by Veeran, a commoner.” As the curtain withdraws, the performers are revealed to be Lalitha and then her sister Padmini! The duo doesn't perform much abstract dance and instead focuses on enacting the lyrics of the story for their first act. In their second act, the sisters appear in horse costumes in what looks like a Poikkal Kudirai Aattam “dummy horse” folk dance! Isn't Padmini absolutely luminous here?  The legend the voiceover refers to is that of the folk deity Madurai Veeran, which was the subject of the 1956 Tamil film of the same name which Padmini acted and danced in (and it has a Lalitha/Ragini dance too).  RajVideoVision just recently uploaded a legal copy of the whole film on YouTube!

What remains unknown is when this documentary was filmed. My guess for the dance portion, based on Padmini’s facial shape and appearance, is around 1950-1952 or so given the similarity to her early film appearances from this time. While Dungan is said to have returned to the US soon after his hit film Manthiri Kumari released in 1950, he made frequent trips back to India and made his last film there in 1962, so Inside India conceivably could have been filmed right before he left or when he returned later. I wonder why he didn’t identify the famous sisters by name in the documentary. Surely Dungan would have known who Padmini and Lalitha were given that they danced in Manthiri Kumari and he was familiar with the Tamil cinema world. I also wonder if this is really an “authentic” drama stage performance or if it’s been manufactured for the documentary. Were Padmini and Lalitha in performing drama troupes at this time?

Footage from 1930s Tamil Cinema Sets/Filmings

While the West Virginia Archives calls this video “15 minutes of Dungan’s home movie film of movie-making in India,” it is no simple home movie! It is incredibly rare, silent footage of the movie making process in South India in the 30s and features many shots of actors, technicians, musicians, and producers of the time period as well as the filming and set technology. It also shows Dungan himself and in action! It is very likely that this is the first extant video footage available for some of the lesser-known people in the shots. And to my absolute delight, there are two short dances!

Here is the video, which I’ve separated into the four films it features below:

Sati Leelavathi (1936)

This film was Dungan’s official directorial debut. Starting at :43, we can see shots of what appear to be film producers or technicians. The first clear shots of Ellis are at 1:00 and 1:20—he looks so out of place! :) Soon after, the title cards for the film are shown (including a valuable technician credits card). Next are various shots of the filming and technical equipment, cameras, and microphone boons, and Dungan himself directing. At 4:22, the shooting of the child marriage scene is featured. A dancer can be seen performing some simplistic abhinaya for about 20 seconds starting at 5:38, and the periya melam musicians are also seen playing auspicious music for the wedding. Randor Guy says there was a cabaret dance in this film featuring dancer-actor Susheela Devi, but I don’t think she’s the same dancer as the one in the wedding scene above. Sati Leelavathi was the first film of MGR; he had a small role as an inspector.  A known photo of him in the film is on the left below.  The right is a screencap from Dungan's footage.  Could it be MGR?  Doubtful...but then there's that unibrow...and that cleft in the chin...

Left: MGR in Sati Leelavathi (source)    Right: ? in Sati Leelavathi

Seemanthani (1936) - At 6:26

The footage here initially focuses on the stars of the film, T.P. Rajalakshmi as the princess and M.R. Krishnamurthi as the prince. T.P. Rajalakshmi was the heroine of the first Tamil sound film, Kalidas (1931), and she was the first star of Tamil Cinema and the first woman director and producer of South India.  To my delight, there is a short dance scene at 7:04 beginning with a shot of the woman’s feet and salangai bells and then moving upwards to frame her upper torso and her gaudy, shiny costume. Maybe she is the cabaret dancer Susheela Devi that Randor Guy spoke of? The footage progresses with a marriage scene and more shots of the crew and set, including a man holding the iconic clapperboard. I especially like the shot of Ellis eating with his hands at 12:00.

Iru Sahodarargal (Two Brothers, 1936) - At 12:08

This footage is mostly casual and lighthearted with a focus on the actors and technicians and not the actual shooting of the film. Iru Sahodarargal was the second film of MGR in which he had a minor role of a policeman (The Hindu).

Ambikapathi (1937) - At 14:11

This film's footage is the only one that is not clearly identified with title cards, but I think it starts at 14:11 right after the beautiful sunset shot of the temple-silhouettes against the skyline. At 14:30, we see the stars of the film, hero MKT (M.K. Thyagaraja Bhagavathar) and heroine M.R. Santhanalakshmi, first among the group and then in a closeup. Ambikapathi was the film that made MKT “the first superstar of South Indian cinema, elevating him to the status of a cult figure” (Randor Guy).  Could this be the earliest video footage of MKT available?  The footage closes with some outside shots and Dungan wearing his characteristic hat. 

More About Ellis Dungan

What remarkable video finds! More and more libraries and archives are moving their collections online with public access, and I hope that more of these discoveries keep coming!

So why are these videos housed in the West Virginia State Archives, you might ask?  After Dungan's time in India, he returned to the United States, settled in Wheeling, West Virginia, and continued making documentary films, many of which were about West Virginia and are now considered "classics" garnering him recognition in the state and even an induction into the "Wheeling Hall of Fame."

Dungan (NOT Duncan as been mistakenly reported and printed in some accounts) has a very fascinating history.  He was born in Ohio and attended the University of Southern California to study cinema.  While at USC, he and American Michael Omalov and Indian Manik Lal Tandon became friends, formed a group, and made a studio film.  Tandon invited Dungan and Omalov to work with him in India, and Dungan got his first experience shooting scenes in Tandon's 1935 film Nandanar (which is now the 1942 version of which is legally on YouTube) during Tandon's absences.  But Dungan's big break came when Tandon declined an offer to direct another Tamil film due to his busy schedule and suggested that Dungan direct it instead.  The fact that Dungan was a "Hollywood-trained technician and filmmaker" sealed the deal.  The film was Sathi Leelavathi (1936)!  This was "the beginning of a new era in Tamil film-making" with Dungan "making a major contribution to it" (The Hindu).

Dungan had originally "planned to stay in India only six months but became so enthralled that he remained for 15 years and became known throughout that country for directing and photographing feature films," and "he worked with India's greatest movie stars and created 17 films in the Tamil and Hindi languages, including 12 of feature length" including such hits as Sakunthalai (1940), Meera (1945), and Manthiri Kumari (1950). He is credited with introducing Hollywood techniques to Tamil cinema (Randor Guy has discussed a few, like the flood sequence in Kalamegham (1939) and the brilliantly-edited song "Nandha Balaa En Manalaa" in Meera (1945)). I'll let Randor Guy's words take it from here: "A brilliant film technician, [Dungan] was equally at home with the lights, editing tools, screenwriting, make-up and direction. He studied the customs, rituals, and the beliefs of the period of the film he was making. As he did not know Tamil, he insisted on involving himself heart and soul in the making of the film from day one. He took an active part in every session of the story discussion of his films with his writers and assistants. And had every line and word translated into English." 

I've listed some interesting sources about Dungan at the end of the post, but the most fascinating source appears to be Dungan's autobiography A Guide to Adventure written with Barbara Smik.  From snippets of it posted online (see the section called "Reminiscences by Ellis R. Dungan" which relate his rare accounts of working with M.S. Subbulakshmi) [dhool.com link no longer available], it is clearly a rich account of Dungan's workings with specific film personalities in India and reveals information and tidbits not previously available save for the work of people alive today who can remember the time period, like Randor Guy.  I'm very interested to read how Dungan approached his work in a country he knew little about and whose language he did not speak.  Was he understanding and open-minded, or a product of the time period and common "Western" views about the "East"? Ashish Rajadhyaksha in the Encylopaedia of Indian Cinema says that Dungan made propaganda shorts during World War II (like Returning Soldier with T.S. Balaiah), and the Wheeling Hall of Fame says that when Dungan returned to the U.S. in 1950, he was "in demand in Hollywood as a cinematographer for jungle adventure stories" like Tarzan Goes to India and The Big Hunt.  The Hall of Fame also notes that Dungan returned to India in the early 90s and was greeted with an "elaborate reception" featuring film industry leaders and government officials.  In an excerpt from his book, Dungan noted that when he got up to speak at the event, his emotions overcame him and rendered him absolutely speechless.  A very amazing man, indeed.

Sources and Further Reading:
Wheeling Hall of Fame: Ellis R. Dungan
The West Virginia Encyclopedia: Ellis Dungan
He Transcended Barriers with Aplomb (The Hindu)
He Made MS a Film Star (The Hindu)
Americans in Tamil Cinema (The Hindu)
Blast from the Past: Seemanthani (Randor Guy, The Hindu)
Full of Technical Innovations [Meera] (Randor Guy, The Hindu)
Blast from the Past: Iru Sahodarargal (Randor Guy, The Hindu)


  1. Amazing post....

    Minor correction - the Nandanar movie in youtube is not the 1935 Nandanar movie. The uploaded movie was made in 1942, directed by Murugadass. http://www.hindu.com/cp/2008/05/30/stories/2008053050431600.htm
    The 1935 version print was destroyed
    "Today, there is no trace of this historic film, except for a few stills"

    1. Oops! You are right and I should have known that from our previous discussion. :) In my hurry to grab the date for the film I used what RajVideoVision had in the video info section. We'll have to tell them they got the wrong date! :) Thanks for the correction.

  2. A documentary on Dungan called An American is Madras should soon be out. https://www.facebook.com/AnAmericanInMadras

  3. Typo in my earlier comment-- that should be "An American in Madras"

    1. Nivedita - What an amazing project, I had no idea! Thank you for sharing that link, I would not have found about it otherwise. This has pushed me to create a Facebook page - I don't want to miss this stuff! :) I will definitely go post about these West Virginia clips on their page... thanks again for the info. All the best, ~Minai

  4. Hi, Minai. This is Richard S. from Dances on the Footpath. I am having some problems with the blogger comments function, which at this point is listing me as "Anonymous." That's because I signed out of Google/Blogger because it kept automatically linking me to a Blogger site that I never use anymore, and I wanted the link to be to WordPress. But it doesn't seem to work. Oh, well, we'll see...

    Anyway, I wanted to say, the Padmini/Lalitha scene is great! By the way, I have seen in an interview with Padmini that the Travancore Sisters were still performing as a troupe and were in stage shows at the same time that they were already doing films. However, I would agree with you that this scene was probably from the early '50s, since they actually looked younger in some of the film scenes from 1947-49. They might have still been doing the dance troupe, or the scene might have been artificially created. Who knows? :)

    1. Oh, OK, the WordPress link did work after all - but the preview kept saying "Anonymous" - not a good system here. :)

    2. Richard - Hello! Sorry you had some commenting problems, perhaps Blogger is doing a 'lil upgrade again. I was hoping you would have time to comment on this post and weigh in on the when-was-it-filmed factor based on Padmini's appearance. :) I'm glad you agree about my early 1950s estimate, and that's exactly what I felt, that Padmini and Lalitha's faces look a bit different and younger in videos from 1949 and earlier. Yay, I'm getting better at identifying them...maybe one day I will reach your level of expertise. :D Excellent information that Padmini had said she and her sisters were performing in stage shows during this time! The clip is such a great video capture of what their performances might have been like--I'm so happy to have found it!

  5. Hi Minai, I thoroughly enjoyed the post. I have bought the "A Guide to Adventure" recently after reading Randor Guy's book. Nice to see your post on Duncan (what a coincidence!). Thanks & Regards

    1. Vijayavardhan - Hello! Glad you liked the post. May I ask where you bought "A Guide to Adventure" and Randor Guy's book (I assume you mean "Starlight, Starbright?")? I've had the hardest time finding them in the US and just resorted to interlibrary loan which may not pan out... :)

  6. I bought them on ebay. Used books. Yes, it was "Starlight, Starbright"

  7. The photo you have uploaded from the video Duncan is MGR.

    1. MGR Roop - Excellent confirmation, especially from someone whose blog subject is MGR! So you certainly would be able to recognize him better than I would. Wow, so that means this clip is the earliest footage available of MGR in films (though brief, at 2-3 seconds)! He looks so young in the video, and his teeth look different from later years. Fascinating... :)


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