In the passing of Randor Guy, the city of Madras that is Chennai has lost a social historian who kept alive memories of an era long gone. Today heritage may be back in fashion but at a time in the 1970s, 80s and 90s when much of it was forgotten, it was a few such as Randor who kept bringing it back into focus. He in particular specialized in the story of people – famous personalities of the city and through them showcased legal, criminal and cinema histories.
Born Madabushi Rangadorai in 1934 into an orthodox Iyengar family that had roots in Nellore but in later years spread to Kanchipuram and Madras, Randor had the misfortune to lose his mother and brother when very young and that left a lasting impact on him. His father M Varahaswami Iyengar was a prominent lawyer who later gave up practice. In keeping with family tradition, Rangadorai qualified in law and apprenticed under the famed legal luminary VC Gopalratnam. He later moved onto stockbroking and then advertising before finding his metier in writing about the past. This was when he took on a pen name, which was a clever anagram of his real one and emerged as Randor Guy.
Over the years Randor emerged as an engaging chronicler of personalities of Chennai. Coming as he did from a family of lawyers it was perhaps natural that he developed a penchant for writing on the prominent lawyers of the city, in particular the luminaries that lived in Palathope (he always wrote of the place as Pelathope), the four Mada Streets of Mylapore, and along Luz Church Road. Even by the 1980s what he described seemed a wondrous world and by the new Millenium it all seemed fables – houses of 150 grounds, incomes for cases amounting to six figures in the early 1900s and entire appeals sent by telegrams. But incredible as it may all have seemed, all of it was true and meticulously researched. He was not a person to indulge in adulation and he generally made sure his pen portraits were balanced -to quote him he kicked sacred bulls and described heroes with all their flaws, warts and all. Randor was also deeply interested and well informed on Madras cinema – Tamil and Telugu. Here again he made people his focus – actors, actresses, technicians, directors and producers. He painstakingly documented several lives. Not many would be aware that he was also an encyclopaedia of Hollywood history. Yet another facet of Randor’s was his fascination with crime. He documented many famous cases of Madras, narrating them in a sensational style, sometimes giving dramatic twists to the stories for readability, not always based on fact. But they did make for gripping reading.
Given all of this, he was soon a writer in demand and his output was prodigious. Starlight Starbright, perhaps his finest work, was a personality-based study of Tamil cinema of the 1930s and 1940s. This was brought out by Amra Publishers in 1997. By the 1990s, a serialised column he wrote for Dinamani titled Anraiya Chennai Pramukhargal became popular – it carried the life sketches of 83 personalities of the city. Manivasagar Pathippagam brought it out in two volumes in 2002. He wrote a crime puzzle series for one of the city’s newspapers, though opinions vary as to which one it was – The Mail or Indian Express. He wrote novels of suspense in Tamil. And he wrote scripts for Jag Mundra, a maker of films in the erotic genre in Hollywood. In the 1990s, Randor wrote a column in Aside, and later articles for Madras Musings. He wrote an entire series for Mylapore Times based on his favourite subject – the luminaries of that area. Anna Nagar Times too carried his stories. The Hindu featured his Blast from the Past, which was a series on famous Tamil and Telugu movies – the info culled from the hundreds of film song books in his possession, buttressed by his own long years of research. More books came out during this time. Crime Writer’s Case Book (2007, KK Books) compiled his articles on famous Madras crimes. These had originally appeared in Tamil in the Kumudam magazine. There are some who aver that Randor’s published books number more than fifty but I am not able to recall any other than the above. He also wrote a book on the Madras Seva Sadan, commissioned by the Trust that runs this body.
I first met Randor in 1999, when he gave a talk at the Sir CP Ramaswami Aiyar Foundation, on Legal Luminaries of Madras. The hall was packed and the heat terrible but Randor kept the audience spellbound and in splits. At the end of it, I got his autograph on Starlight Starbright and introduced myself. We became good friends. When Sanjay Subrahmanyan and I ran the website Sangeetham.com, we commissioned Randor to do a series for it on Carnatic Musicians in Tamil Cinema. With photos supplied by Film News Anandan, the column was a success. He knew his Carnatic music – lyrics, ragas and all, though he never let on this aspect. When I wrote Carnatic Summer, and the Devadasi and the Saint, he was one of my valuable resources. During the course of the research. Randor and I would have long phone conversations. I also had the opportunity to visit him at his Ayanavaram residence and be introduced to his wife Dola, and daughters Maria and Priya. It was also through him that I got introduced to yet another treasure trove of information – VAK Ranga Rao. They were very close friends.
RT Chari, noted patron of the arts was one of Randor’s admirers and in fact it was he who sponsored the publication of Starlight Starbright. When Chari embarked on his monthly South India Heritage Series of Lectures in 2002, Randor was naturally a speaker of choice. Not only did he inaugurate the series which would go on for almost 18 years but he also was a fixture at the programmes, dropping off only when mobility became an issue for him in his later years. Chari later sponsored yet another compilation of Randor’s writings titled Memories of Madras, Its Movies, Musicians, and Men of Letters.
Randor always peppered his speeches with the observation that there was more to be said, which he would do so over a drink. He was true to his word and was the life and soul of parties that he attended, regaling the group that would rapidly form around him with another variety of tales of the city’s past. But there was never any malice. Randor was himself a true representative of what he described often – a gracious world, long past.
The passing of elder daughter Maria around ten years ago marked the beginning of Randor’s long decline. He was not quite the same person there after. Mobility issues became severe and that prevented him from frequenting the social and cultural venues he was fond of and familiar with. The onset of the Covid pandemic only made matters worse. In the last year of his life, Randor had the satisfaction of much of his archival material being acquired by the FTII Pune. He and his wife moved into a hospice where he was well looked after. The end came on Sunday, April 23, 2023. As Randor always signed off his email – it was Hasta la Vista to a gifted writer and raconteur of the past.
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