Carnatic legend MS Subbulakshmi also had a brief but noteworthy movie career – she headlined five films, of which Ellis R Dungan directed three. The American national, who was one of the pioneers of early Tamil cinema, directed Subbulakshmi in Sakuntalai (1940), Meera (1945) in Tamil and its Hindi version of the same name, made in 1947. Film historians consider Meera to be Subbulakshmi’s best ever performance.

Dungan certainly seemed to think that the biopic was his greatest cinematic achievement in India. Several sequences in his telling of the story of the 16th century Rajput princess and fervent devotee of the god Krishna bear Dungan out. The transition from the young Meera to the older one through the song Nandhabala, the montage dealing with Meera’s fame spreading throughout the land, and the plot to poison her that is depicted through dramatic shadow play, are some of the visual flourishes that showcase Dungan’s technical acumen. In his autobiography A Guide to Adventure, co-written with Barbara Smik, Dungan recalls, “Of all the Tamil theatrical motion picture films that I directed in India, 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 MS and her husband, T Sadasivam.“

Ellis R Dungan directing ‘Meera’. Courtesy West Virginia State Archives, USA.
Ellis R Dungan directing ‘Meera’. Courtesy West Virginia State Archives, USA.

Though Dungan had cut down on his feature film work during World War II and signed up as the official photographer of the Madras government, he jumped at the offer to direct Meera. After all, the movie reunited him with his good friends MS and her husband Sadasivam after their highly regarded previous effort, Sakuntalai. Once on board, Dungan began his work by getting a written version of the script and breaking it down into scenes and shots – in other words, creating a shooting script, something he pioneered in Tamil cinema. This meant detailing the action on the left half of the page and matching it with corresponding dialogue on the right side. Dungan got each scene translated from Tamil into English and then leave Chennai (then Madras) for a month or two to work on the script. For Meera, Dungan stayed in Coonoor for a month in a cottage set up with a cook and domestic help for him by Sadasivam. MS and Sadasivam would drop in on Sundays to check on the script, take back the material that was ready, and get it typed up in English.

Ellis R Dungan and T Sadasivam. Courtesy Radha Viswanathan.
Ellis R Dungan and T Sadasivam. Courtesy Radha Viswanathan.

Before filming began for Meera, Dungan and his cinematographer, Jiten Banerjee, did a series of elaborate lighting tests on a specially created bust of MS. They shot the bust using different camera heights and angles with varied lighting schemes. They then studied the developed rushes to decide what worked best for Subbulakshmi’s face structure. Little wonder, then, that she looks absolutely ethereal in the film. A particular scene highlighting her eyes was a favourite of Dungan’s.

“MS had beautiful large eyes and I wanted to highlight them during one of her songs. I used a special lighting with equipment I’d brought with me from the US and isolated the areas 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… … It was a beautiful effect,” he writes in his memoir.

Dungan’s approach papers over the singer’s relative lack of professional acting experience. He treats the story as a prop to lead into her numerous songs wherever possible. Here of course, MS is in divine form and responds beautifully to each and every track.

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‘Katrinile Varun Geetham’ from ‘Meera’ (1945).

Meera began production first at Studio Newtone in Chennai before moving on to North India – Rajasthan in particular – for on-location filming. Radha Viswanathan, Subbulakshmi’s daughter, who played the young Meera in the film, remembers that crowds thronged the shoot wherever MS was present. According to her, some fans believed that Subbulakshmi was Meera reincarnated.

Dungan’s locations included Dwarka, Vrindavan, Jaipur and Udaipur. He fondly recalled the shoot at Udaipur, in particular. “Due to the kindness and assistance of the Maharana’s prime minister, we were given carte blanche to film practically anything and anywhere in and around the palaces and gardens,” he wrote in his autobiography. “We were also granted the use of such facilities as the royal barge, elephants, a royal procession, the palace dancing girls, hundreds of film “extras” and all of the water fountains in and around the palaces. These were ready-made sets and would have cost us a fortune to reproduce in a studio setting, if they could be reproduced at all. Filming in Udaipur was one of the most delightful and pleasurable experiences I enjoyed in all of my years of filmmaking in India.”

A ‘Meera’ show at Sagar Theatre in Chennai. Courtesy Radha Viswanathan.
A ‘Meera’ show at Sagar Theatre in Chennai. Courtesy Radha Viswanathan.

Meera had a Diwali release in 1945 and was a huge box office success. Its popularity led Sadasivam to ambitiously attempt a Hindi version.

The Hindi production stuck with its original cast and was largely dubbed in Hindi. Some of the reshooting centered on MS, and her songs were re-recorded and re-filmed in Hindi. The Hindi Meera had a spectacular premiere in 1947, with dignitaries such as Jawaharlal Nehru, the Mountbattens and C Rajagopalachari in attendance. Freedom fighter and poet Sarojini Naidu introduced Subbulakshmi to Hindi speaking viewers by declaring, “You will cherish her. You will be proud, that India in this generation, has produced so supreme an artist.”

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Sarojini Naidu introduces ‘Meera’.

And cherished she was. The huge success of the Hindi version led to Subbulakshmi becoming a household name all over the country. Many saw her as the embodiment of the saint. Meera proved to be the ideal swansong to Subbulakshmi’s acting career. After the Hindi release, she concentrated on her music.

Jawaharlal Nehru with MS Subbulakshmi in 1947. Courtesy West Virginia State Archives, USA.
Jawaharlal Nehru with MS Subbulakshmi in 1947. Courtesy West Virginia State Archives, USA.

Dungan had an opportunity to revisit his feat in 1994, during a visit to India. The filmmaker, who was then 83, visited India for pre-production work on a wildlife film with which he was involved. The effort of Dungan’s close friend, Rochelle Shah, resulted in a felicitation in Chennai by the Tamil film industry for his remarkable achievements. Both Sadasivam and Subbulakshmi initially declined to attend the event, citing ill health. But on the day of the function, they did show up to everyone’s surprise. Without caring about the lack of accompaniment or the quality of the microphone arrangements at the venue, MS stood up and sang one of the songs from Meera as a tribute to Dungan. As Shah recalls the incident in my documentary on Dungan, An American in Madras (2013), “There wasn’t a dry eye in that hall… There wasn’t a dry eye…”

The 1994 function. Courtesy Rochelle Shah.
The 1994 function. Courtesy Rochelle Shah.

Karan Bali is the co-founder of the website Upperstall, the director of the documentary An American in Madras, and a contributor to Scroll.in.