Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91
Vol. XXVI No. 17, December 16-31, 2016
“I have a photographic memory,” says author Randor Guy. It is not a boast. He is merely stating a fact when asked how he manages to remember so much information about Madras and Tamil movies. At 82, he remembers every event, every conversation, every sight, since the time he was three or four, including some horrendous family tragedies which it would have been better for him to forget.
Most Chennaites (at least those who read newspapers and magazines) and nostalgia fans, know Randor Guy and his columns on old Tamil cinema and crime reports of around the same period. His language is unique, old world, with a sort of 1940s American cowboy twang (who else would sign off to a Madras audience with ‘Hasta La Vista!’?). Add to thisTamil colloquialisms of the time and a penchant for describing his characters (especially the female ones) with voluptuous prose and you have the vintage, unmistakable Randor Guy style.
Although born as Rangadurai, a solid Iyengar Brahmin name, the author shifted the letters around to anglicise it for his pseudonym. However, it became his official name (“Absolutely legal, it’s even on my passport!” he laughs) long ago. Trained as a lawyer, he worked as a junior to the well-known advocate, V.C. Gopalaratnam, for some years. Guy likes to recall that his senior would compel him to sit in on every client meeting, as he would never forget what was said during those meetings, a fact that Gopalaratnam liked his clients to know!
Law, however, was not Guy’s only interest. He was a good cricketer, enjoyed writing, and had a fascination for the movies. He began his writing career with a series on famous criminal cases in My Magazine, an English journal that Guy likes to remember was profitable, largely because of the full-page advertisements for cures for male impotence it used to carry in issue after issue! The series proved popular. Meanwhile he was increasingly drawn towards the exciting developments in Tamil movie making and he began to observe and write about that. Apart from actually being present at the shootings and meeting stars and directors, Randor Guy also began to research deeply into the beginnings of Tamil cinema, a subject that was to fascinate him for the rest of his life. When the Poona Film Institute was set up, Randor Guy was one of the people asked to provide material on South Indian cinema for its archives.
The problem with Randor Guy’s writings is that, owing to their informative value, they have been published and republished in umpteen magazines and newspapers and while, hard core fans still read every column avidly, the general reader looks at the stills, reads the blurb and moves on, confident that he or she had read the column before or would read it later.
By compiling all these columns, under subject headings in one book, Memories of Madras*, editor T.S. Gopal has given the reader a historical narrative of Tamil cinema from its inception in 1897 to around 1960, with an amazing amount of detail, colour and humour. In fact, it seems that the author’s words often run over each other in his effort to convey all his information. The reader is often left wondering if there are not several more as yet unwritten books here. This is the sort of book you like to keep and revisit often.
Memories of Madras begins with the entry of movies into India in 1895 and to the Madras Presidency, in 1897. A European exhibitor screened a few silent movie shorts at the Victoria Public Hall near the Madras Central railway station. Later, in 1900, the Electric Theatre (now “The Philatelic Bureau on Anna Salai), and the Lyric Theatre (later known as Elphinstone) were built and more short films were screened there. These were largely seen by the British and their families. Most Indians viewed cinema as an immoral Western invention, best left alone. Guy explores these social attitudes in some detail in his columns. According to him most middle class, conservative families considered it a sin to watch a movie. Boys from such families who were curious about movies had to watch them on the sly. The idea of being in any way connected with a movie was considered so immoral that when Indian directors began to scout for actresses to act in their productions, even well-known prostitutes refused to act in them!
However, despite these prudish attitudes, there was certainly an audience for the movies, both among the masses and among the very educated, for whom this was an exciting new medium of communication. Many of the pioneers were from upper class educated families, and they explored cinema as producers, directors, song-writers and actors.
Travelling from the setting up of ‘tent cinemas’ (thatch roofed theatres set up in fields near small towns) where the early imported movies were shown, Guy’s narrative traces the history of South Indian cinema and its pioneers. These include, R.Nataraja Mudaliar, who set up the first production company, the Indian Film Company, and made the first locally produced film, Keechaka Vadham; A. Narayanan, who produced the first Tamil talkie,Srinivasa Kalyanam; Raja Sandow, the body builder -turned -actor-turned film-maker; Papanasam Sivan, who brought wonderful lyrics and music to Tamil movies; M.K.Thyagaraja Bhagavathar, the singing and acting sensation of his time, the first ‘star’ of Tamil movies; T.R. Rajakumari, the first femme fatale of Tamil cinema; the dashing M.K.Radha; M.S. Subbulakshmi, who brought the ethereal quality of her looks and music to uplift the few movies she acted in; S.S. Vasan, who moved reluctantly from publishing the magazine Ananda Vikatan to setting up what was to become a hugely successful film production house, Gemini Films; K.Subrhamanyam, who made so many successful films and introduced so many talented actors; A.V.Meyyappan, who came from a small business background in Chettinad, to set up,first Saraswathi Stores, the highly successful recording and distribution company and later, the even more successful production house, AVM.
And then there was Ellis R. Dungan, the American who lived in Tamil Nadu for 13 years and made highly successful films in a language that he never understood!
Randor Guy’s book highlights the blockbusters, the also-rans and the complete failures in Tamil movies of that time, because there were lessons to be learnt from each of these.
Memories of Madras also traces the rise of the Dravidian influence in Tamil movies, through the meteoric rise of C.N. Annadurai and M. Karunanudhi, whose literary talents subtly brought Dravidian politics and ideals into Tamil cinema. Their success in cinema contributed in no small way to their political careers. Both went on to become Chief Ministers of the State. The book also traces the humble beginnings, struggles, failures and finally, the stupendous success of M.G.Ramachandran who, by reason of being affiliated to the DMK at the time, furthered the interests of the Party. His popularity also contributed to the fall from power of the DMK, when he left it to float his own Party, and his own rise as a much-loved Chief Minister of the State. Another star who looked like he would never succeed but went on to become an acting legend was Sivaji Ganesan. The early struggles of all these latter-day giants make for absorbing reading.
In Part Two of this book are compiled the author’s biographical portraits of great movie and music personalities of those times, from M.S. Subbulakshmi to K. Balachander. These are charming, intimate sketches, where the personalities are presented with their foibles and strengths intact.
In Part Three, Guy writes at length about one of the greatest legal luminaries of Madras, V.L.Ethiraj. What is interesting about this section is that it is not just the story of Ethiraj but a canvas of the Madras legal world and also the city as it once was –‘ so much more likeable than it is now!” Guy sighs.
Those of us who have read Randor Guy’s columns earlier might have a sense of déjà vu while reading Memories of Madras. As it is a loose compilation of columns there is also a good deal of repetition. But then, nostalgia has a way of gripping you and no matter how often you have visited its landscape, its invitation to explore its spaces is still irresistible.
* Memories of Madras by Randor Guy (Creative Workshop).