Review: An American in Madras

I'm really no expert on movie reviews, especially documentaries. However, this is one that I just had to write about. Karan Bali is my class-mate from my early school years and it was great to be able to see his work first hand.

Not one for watching documentaries unless it's about food or travel, there definitely was some trepidation when I entered the beautiful premises of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Bangalore. However, in a few moments after the screening started, I was totally into the narrative and picturization. I won't go into the details of the documentary itself as people more competent than I will do a better job.

For me, it was fascinating that a white man would come to South India and the Tamil film industry and make Tamil movies in the late 30s and 40s. The  combination of sheer determination, creativity and focus of Ellis Dungan was a treat to watch.

With the right pacing and an engaging narrative, the events and interviews unfolded chronologically (in time) resulting in simple and effective storytelling. Like most documentaries, it was informative as I had no idea that Dungan had directed movies like Meera and Shakuntala. To me, the highlight will be the heartwarming look into the early movies of  the legendary doyen of Carnatic Music - M S Subbalakshmi. A truly ethereal beauty with a voice quality I have not heard from anyone else. As Sarojini Naidu says in the documentary, MS WAS Meera!

 I had never actually seen MKT Bhagvathar on-screen and getting glimpses of his acting and singing gave me an unique insight into his persona. And of course, who can forget the scenes of MGR in Sathi Leelavati.  Some trivia here - I learnt that the signature MGR tiny beard was a clever ploy to hide a small cleft in his chin as such deformities in heroes were frowned upon! Who knew!

There wasn't actually a single dull moment in the entire seventy odd minutes of the documentary and the ending with the felicitation of Dungan in Chennai did leave me a bit teary eyed, especially seeing MS, still classy and dignified.

The research done, people interviewed (including Kamal Hassan), the rare footages; pretty much the entire package was something that I will cherish for a long time to come.

After the program, I overheard a Caucasian lady in the audience say that it's not often one gets to meet a director during a movie preview and wanted to go up and talk to Karan. I felt proud that I know a very good filmmaker well and sincerely hope he continues to make lovely movies of this nature in the future.

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