The blue-eyed star who carved a special niche
December 7, 2017

Tom Alter was born to American parents in India, but excelled in Hindi and Urdu. His stage performances brought several great historical characters alive, backed mainly by his mastery and command over a language he learnt from childhood – Urdu. Shoma A. Chatterji pays a loving tribute

I met Tom Alter at a rehearsal for a stage play he had come to attend at Mumbai’s Nehru Centre many years ago. He gave me his card and said he would be prepared for an interview any time. I was taken by surprise – it was a world where arrogance ruled supreme. But the interview never happened for a silly reason – I did not have a telephone and the Internet age had not dawned. Years later, I met him again for a few minutes after his film, Ocean of an Old Man, was screened at the Siri Fort Auditorium in Delhi.

I was amazed by his performance in the film though it was a bit of a drag as Alter’s was practically the sole character with cinematography the hero. He appeared disappointed that not many people had come for the screening and some of them had walked out. But he did not express it. That was Tom Alter – grounded, erudite, skilled and a fine craftsman at whatever he did in his multi-faceted career as actor across the three media – cinema, television and stage, sports commentator, journalist and author.

I went to watch his solo performance as and in Maulana Azad in Kolkata some years ago presented by New Delhi’s Pierrot’s Troupe. He carried off the entire performance but the sad thing was that as it was in pure Urdu and few Kolkatans, including myself, had any knowledge of such chaste Urdu except the hybrid and corrupted versions we get to see in Hindi films. Most in the audience walked out mid-way. This, however, was no reflection of Alter’s courage to perform a character picked out of history to go against the grain though he was White.

The wonderfully talented Tom Alter.

In 1977, along with Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani, Alter founded Motley Productions, a theatre group. Their first play was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, staged at Prithvi Theatre, Mumbai, in 1979. In 2007, he acted in the theatrical reproduction of William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns. His latest play at Prithvi was an adaptation of Vaikom Muhammad Basheer’s My Grandad Had an Elephant in 2011. His last stage performance was in Once Upon A Time, a collection of five short stories along with Sunit Tandon staged in Mumbai in June this year.

Sayeed Alam’s Ghalib is another play that enhanced the talents of Alter. He essayed the role of the 70-year-old Ghalib, with four different actors also playing Ghalib in different age groups. Says Alam, “He hated to be called the white-skinned man but I don’t think any other Indian could have Maulana Azad or Ghalib like he did. When he acted in Maulana Azad, he acted like Maulana, and when he acted in Ghalib, he would behave like him. He was like a punar janam (rebirth) to Ghalib. He has played the lead actor in nine of my plays; I don’t think I can ever fill that place now.”

Says Arvind Gaur, founder, Asmita Theatre Group: “Through his acting and expressions, he was able to represent the subtext or would make the audience read between the lines. He wasn’t an aggressive actor but rather he was an intense and intelligent actor. Films karne ke baad bhi (after doing films), he was committed to theatre, which is a rare case. This is really a big loss to the Indian theatre and cinema.”

Alter’s desire to become an actor was triggered when he was working as a teacher at the St Thomas School in Jagadhri, Haryana. That is when he began watching Hindi films and got addicted to films. He was only 19 and, in addition to teaching, he also coached the students in cricket.

Shakti Samant’s thumping box- office hit Aradhana changed the course of Alter’s life forever. He was so enamoured by the film in general and Rajesh Khanna in particular that along with his friends, he made it a point to watch it three times within the same week. He was a great admirer of Rajesh Khanna and decided to become an actor. It took a bit of time for him to make up his mind but once he did, he headed to the FTII Pune.

Alter was one of three men – the others being Benjamin Gilani and Phunsok Ladakhi – chosen from over 800 applicants across North India who had applied for admission. He graduated with a gold medal diploma in Acting in 1974. He remained grateful to the head of Acting, Roshan Taneja, and remained close to his co-students in the acting course who later became big names in Bollywood – Naseeruddin Shah, Benjamin Gilani and Shabana Azmi.

Alter’s fluency in Urdu – spoken, read and written – drew the attention of Satyajit Ray who picked him to play an important role in Shatranj Ke Khilari. Among his notable roles during the first decade of his acting career were Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1979), Manoj Kumar’s Kranti (1981) and Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985). Other notable directors he worked with during the 1970s and ‘80s were V. Shantaram, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Manmohan Desai, Subhash Ghai, Chetan Anand and Vidhu Vinod Chopra, who gave him the pivotal role of the gangster Musa in the critically acclaimed hit Parinda.

Other notable films were Mahesh Bhatt’s Aashiqui and Gumrah, Ketan Mehta’s Sardar (1993) and Priyadarshan’s Kala Pani. In Sardar Patel (1993) directed by Ketan Mehta, he portrayed the role of Lord Mountbatten. During the time, Alter also acted in regional cinema – Bengali, Assamese, Telugu, Tamil and Kumaoni films. Among his foreign films were Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and One Night with the King, in which he acted opposite his idol, the legendary Peter O’Toole.

Remembering his commitment and dedication to research and homework for a role /character, Bhargav Saikia who picked Alter to portray the author Ruskin Bond in his short film Black Cat, says, “I knew that Tom Alter and Ruskin Bond were very close friends though there was a gap in their respective ages. On the very first day of the shoot, Tom asked to talk to Bond on the phone and asked him what songs Bond sang when he was young and we used those two songs in the film. It added to the authenticity of the character. Working with an actor of his status, never mind his modesty, was a great learning experience for me.”

In 1996, Alter played a significant role in the Assamese film, Adajya, that marked the directorial debut of Santwana Bardoloi. It was based on Indira Goswami’s Dontal Haatir Uiye Khuwa Haoda set in 1940s Assam. He portrayed the role of a young American scholar who unwittingly gets involved in the lives of three widows trapped in their socially tragic situations. The film won the National Award for the Best Assamese film the following year.

Alter’s television career as an actor has been as visible and popular as was his work as a sports journalist and author. He was part of more than 300 films besides numerous TV shows, most famously as the gangster Keshav Kalsi in the hit soap opera Junoon which ran for a record five years during the 1990s. Most recently, he was seen in a pivotal role in the ongoing serial Rishton Ka Chakravyuh on Star Plus. 

In early 2017, Alter performed in a specially curated theatre festival of his various plays in Hindi, English, Hindustani and Urdu titled Jashn-e-Maazi: The Play of History, which featured 19 of his portrayals and adaptations of leading historical figures such as Maulana Azad, Mirza Ghalib, Manto, Saahir Ludhianvi, Rabindranath Tagore, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Alfred Einstein and Mahatma Gandhi.

In a sad opinion piece lamenting the dying of Urdu, Alter wrote: “All languages, when spoken well and listened to equally well, are intrinsically beautiful – Urdu is a language which grew from and with languages such as Arabic, Farsi, Turkish, English, Khari Boli, Hindi, Awadhi, Brijbhasha – and many more – it is an Indian language, and is a language of the people – it flourished without the particular backing of any religion or any region, and still does – Jashn-e-Rekhta so lovingly proved this point, although it actually does not need any proving.” ( September 30, 2017.)

In addition to acting, Alter also ventured into direction and was a sports journalist in the 1980s and ‘90s. In fact, he is the first ever journalist to have interviewed Sachin Tendulkar long before the cricketer became a household name. He remained a journalist for television and the print media for nearly two decades. He did a weekly column for the Sunday Observer besides contributing to Mid-Day, Gentleman and Debonair other than writing extensively for Sportsweek. Alter wrote three books, one non-fiction and two fictions, and in 2008 was awarded the prestigious Padma Shri by the Indian Government in recognition for his services to the field of arts and cinema.

October – December 2017