Ilankai Tamil Sangam

Association of Tamils of Sri Lanka in the USA

Reminiscences on Directing M.S., the Musician-Movie Star

by Ellis R. Dungan

Front Note by Sachi Sri Kantha

M.S.Subbulakshmi (the supreme musician of 20th century Tamil Nadu and known to millions simply by her initials, M.S.) bid farewell to us on December 11th at the age of 88.  She is on route to moksha – the everlasting celestial palace of angels, dancers and musicians.  Since the 12th I have been reading the eulogies to M.S. on the internet, which she well deserved.  In these days of word inflation, even correspondents and editorialists heap adjectives abundantly to show their appreciation.  The music produced by M.S. doesn’t need all these adjectives.  A couple of words would suffice, to describe her talent perfectly; ‘great’ and its superlative form ‘greatest.’  Since journalist hacks have devalued the real meaning of ‘great’ to tagging it to persons of mediocre minds and deeds, now they are in a fix about how to describe the poise and sweetness of M.S.’s voice.

M.S. in Meera

Sometimes it is even humorous to read the banal pourings of Chennai editorialists. Take for example the eulogy to M.S. which appeared in the Hindu newspaper of December 13th, which was entitled ‘Once in an Epoch.’  The pan-Indian thinking of the Hindu editorialist even blinded his vision on the simple facts of M.S.’s life.  What struck me was that the word ‘Tamil’ was missing in this 606-word editorial!  After all, M.S.Subbulakshmi was a Tamilian by birth and Tamilian by nurture and Tamilian in her lifestyle.  Also missing is the word Madurai, which stood for M. in M.S.’s initials.  Madurai, is one of the three cities (other two being Tanjavur and Jaffna) which has epitomised the thriving Tamil culture for millenia.  But the short-sighted and highly opinionated Hindu editorialist even robbed M.S.’s birthplace its due recognition by intentionally (perhaps!) omitting Madurai in his eulogy.  It is somewhat crass that M.S. has to be propped up in the pan-Indian scale, by a deceptive masking of her Tamilian roots. 

One sentence in the editorial states, "Born into the tradition, she absorbed classical values from her home and began her career on the stage as a child accompanying her mother’s veena."  Quite a few biological facts of M.S. are glossed over in this sentence.  M.S. was born in 1916, in a then-prevailing "exceptional tradition" of Tamil artistes, now considered out-moded and rather repulsive.  She belonged to the devadasi (temple dancer) clan.  Her mother was the head of the poor household in which she grew up.  Of course, M.S. had an ‘absentee’ father – one Subramania Iyer, who didn’t live with them - but lived separately in a different house in the same vicinity.  Details of the other orthodox ‘branch’ of Subramania Iyer are hardly forthcoming these days. According to available records, Subramania Iyer hardly provided any sustenance and supportive influence on M.S. and her siblings when they were growing.  The ‘S’ in M.S. initials represented her mother’s name Shanmugavadivu – and not her father, Subramania Iyer.

Since I’m an ordinary fan of M.S.’s songs, and not much is served by repeating ad nauseam what readers can find anywhere else, I wish to pay homage to M.S.’s memory by reproducing excerpts from a book authored by one of M.S.’s mentors in the Tamil movie world and her English tutor.  This mentor is an American, named Ellis R. Dungan – one of the pioneer directors of Tamil movies in the 1930s and 1940s.  Dungan provides a vintage angle (which others cannot provide) on how he trained M.S. for her hit movies, as a director.  Dungan’s name was missing in the recent eulogies I read on M.S.  But he was an influential presence in young M.S.’s life.  As a fan of movie history, I purchased recently a copy of Dungan’s autobiography ‘A Guide to Adventure; An Autobiography’ (2001).  Ellis Dungan, born in Barton, Ohio, in 1909, landed in India in 1935.  Next year, he directed his first Tamil movie Sathi Leelavathi, which introduced to the Tamil movie world giants and trend-setters like MGR, T.S.Balaiah and N.S.Krishnan, who became household names to all Tamils.  It was also Dungan who directed the two movies which featured M.S. as the singing star; Sakunthalai (1940) and Meera (1945).

What is interesting in Dungan’s reminiscences is the fact he probably is the only one (who was in a position and also as an elder) to insult M.S. ‘in front of others’ so that she could deliver a great performance in Sakunthalai movie.  Of course, he took the prior permission to do so, from M.S.’s husband cum manager T.Sadasivam.  This anecdote is revealing in another plane; that even an artist of M.S.’s caliber had to be taunted to give her ‘best’ which was somehow failing to come out from her.  Dungan left Madras to return to the USA in 1950.  His final Tamil movie was another classic, Manthiri Kumari [The Minister’s Daughter], which featured MGR and Madhuri Devi.  The script for this movie was written by none other than M.Karunanidhi, the DMK leader, then a 26 year old youth.  Dungan died on December 1, 2001 at the age of 92.  I reproduce excerpts from Dungan’s reminiscences on how he directed M.S. in her two ever-popular Tamil movies.

A Guide to Adventure: An Autobiography

by Ellis R. Dungan with Barbara Smik

[courtesy: Dorrance Publishing Co, Pittsburgh, 2001, 261pp]

In 1939 I had a call from film producer K.Subramaniam in Madras, who was to produce, or at least direct, a film for M.S.Subbulakshmi and her Kalki magazine publisher husband, T.Sadasivam.  They had formed their own film company and wanted to produce a mythological film called Sakunthalai (the name of the female lead character). They asked Subramaniam to direct it, but due to a prior commitment, he was unable to obligate himself to this film and asked me if I would accept it.  That is when I first met the great actress and musician M.S.Subbulakshmi.  I always addressed her as ‘M.S.’ on the set, as it was a common practice in Indian film circles to address the actors by their initials.

Sakunthalai gave me the delightful opportunity of working with the living legend M.S.Subbulakshmi.  I am reminded of a scene where she is supposed to speak angrily to her screen husband, a king, who was seated on his throne surrounded by his courtiers and others.  After seemingly hours of rehearsals I was unable to get M.S. into an angry, fighting mood befitting the dialogue.  So I took her husband aside and asked his permission to scold her – even embarrass her in front of all the other actors and crew on the set.  To my surprise, he agreed.  So I went back and really lit into her, saying how much time and money she had wasted on this scene, in retakes alone, and how disappointed I was in her.  I even threatened to cancel shooting if she did not shape up.

What really hurt her most of all – it actually brought tears to her eyes – was when I finally told her in front of everyone on the set what a lousy actress she was (of course, she wasn’t).  I then stomped off the set.  She was shocked – completely shocked – but the strategy worked.  Her husband came to her rescue to soothe her wounded feelings.  M.S., after drying her eyes, became angry at me as well as at herself, and with fire in her eyes she quickly turned to King Dushyanta and let him have it full blast.  Fortunately, the lights were on and the camera and sound were running.  Undoubtedly this was the finest piece of acting M.S. had ever done.  I was so pleased and proud of her that I embraced her in front of her husband and all on the set.  I no doubt embarrassed her at that time.  M.S. understood only a few basic words of English, but she understood well the angry mood I was in at the time of degrading her acting ability.  Working with an artist one on one in highly dramatic and emotional scenes demands much patience on the part of the director.  At times the use of various ‘tricks of the trade’ are necessary in order to accomplish the desired results.

Sakunthalai was one of my most popular films, and also one of my favorites – due mainly to Subbulakshmi’s fine acting and two special scenes.  The first I refer to as the ‘ring’ scene.  It seems that one day when Sakunthalai was bathing in the river, the ring her husband gave her slipped off her finger and was swallowed by a fish.  I spent much time and effort in creating and filming this scene: cutting back and forth in tight close-ups of the ring and Sakunthalai’s face, as the ring descended downward in the water.  In order to follow the ring in tight close-up we had to shoot through a small glass tank filled with water and a clear viscous fluid to slow down the ring’s descending motion.  We also shot the scene in slow motion at various speeds.  This scene created quite a stir and applause in Madras film circles.

For the other special scene, I hired a scantily dressed female dancer for the role of a water nymph.  She was a young European girl in her late twenties, possessing a beautiful Venus-type figure, who performed acrobatic dances with a male partner in cabaret shows at the Connemara Hotel in Madras.  In an unheard-of technique in Indian films, she came up out of a water tank and danced in her rather skin-tight one-piece bathing suit.  Believe me, it created quite a bit of excitement among the Indian actors and film crew…[pp.70-72]

Of all the Tamil theatrical motion picture films that I directed in India, the film Meera was considered by my peers and local film critics to be my best – and I am inclined to agree.  The picture was produced by Chandraprabha Cinetone, a company formed by M.S. and her husband, T.Sadasivam.  I directed the Tamil version and later the Hindi version of Meera.

An innovation I brought to Indian films was the ‘shooting script,’ where the script would be broken down into scenes and shots, with action on the left half of the page and dialogue on the right half.  First I would have each scene translated for me from Tamil into English, and then I’d go to the hill country for a month or two to write the shooting script…I told Sadasivam I wanted to go to Coonoor to work on the Meera script.  He readily agreed and even offered to set me up in a small cottage with cook and servant.  Having acquired a taste for South Indian food, as spicy hot as some of the dishes are, I accepted his kind offer.  Every Sunday M.S. and Sadasivam would pay me a visit to check on the progress of the script and on my welfare.  They would pick up the script pages and take them down to Madras for typing in English…

At the end of a month I was back in Madras with the completed shooting script preparing to cast the film, conduct dialogue and music rehearsals, and construct sets at Newtone Studio.  We first had the extensive ‘in-studio’ filming to do in Madras. There is one scene of which I was particularly proud in this film.  M.S. had beautiful large eyes, and I wanted to highlight them during one of her songs.  I used a special lighting with equipment that I’d brought with me from the U.S. and isolated the area of her eyes with two ‘gobos’ – one at the top of her eyes and one underneath – and feathered the edges of the gobos by putting a diffusion screen on the top and bottom edges to soften them.  The final cut showed only the close-up of her eyes, which filled the screen.  It was a beautiful effect. (pp.81-83)

…During our forced breaks in the Meera shooting schedule (due mostly to the rationing of film, processing chemicals and photographic supplies during the war years), I often took on ‘still’ photographic assignments for Kalki, the popular Tamil weekly magazine published by T.Sadasivam and ‘Kalki’ Krishnamurti.  These assignments included several of M.S.’s musical concerts.  Notwithstanding her worldwide name and fame as a musical genius, M.S.’s personal life has always been a very simple one.  She is unaffected by her celebrity status and international renown and is of almost childlike innocence and naivete.

As an actress she worked hard to perfect her art.  Since M.S. understood a smattering of English at the time I first met her, I was later able to communicate quite well with her during the making of her films.  When time permitted I also taught her a few words of English.  By the time we completed Meera, she had mastered enough English to carry on a decent conversation, all of which held her in good stead later when she visited Europe, England and the U.S. on concert tours.  Since she was always surrounded by musicians in her home, rehearsing songs for a recital somewhere, I had to literally wait my turn to conduct film rehearsals.  She was quite a busy lady and a lovable one…(pp.86-87)

…In January of 1994, I again was invited to return to India by some friends in the film industry (of course, the invitation is always open there)…When I got to the reception on my behalf, I was overwhelmed by all the attention from the press, film organizations, and actors.  Most of the guests were from my filmmaking days in Madras.  Among them was the great actress/musician M.S.Subbulakshmi and her husband T.Sadasivam.  The chief minister of Madras and the American consul general were also there to welcome me.…M.S. sat next to me at my table, along with her husband, and later during the evening she honored me with a song.  What a reception!  Friends congratulating me…all the former film stars greeting me…I couldn’t believe it!  These people were all there for me?  Many of the guests would embrace me or get down on their knees and ‘take the dust of my feet’.  And they wanted me to get up and speak, but when I got to the podium I was so overcome with emotion that I couldn’t speak.  Words failed me, and the tears started to flow.  I know the guests must have been disappointed, but I had to offer my apologies and sit back down.  I’d never experienced anything like that in my life. (pp.177-178).

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Posted December 16, 2004