Tom Alter, a veteran of film and stage, was a gora sahib with a desi heart

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Written by Shaikh Ayaz
| Mumbai |
Updated: September 30, 2017 12:52 pm


With his blond hair, white skin and raffish air, it was easy for anyone to think of Tom Alter as American or British. But when he spoke in chaste Hindi and Urdu, there was no more confirmation needed for his Indian-ness.

In the eyes of the movie-viewing public at large, Tom Alter was the stereotypical British soldier or Company man who never lost an opportunity to show his arrogant colonial contempt. Being mistaken for a foreigner in his own land was something that Tom Alter, who passed away at 67 today battling skin cancer, had to endure all his life. He was born in Mussoorie in Uttarakhand in 1950, just three years after Independence, and was as much an Indian as anyone else. With his blond hair, white skin and raffish air, it was easy for anyone to think of him as American or British. But when Alter spoke in chaste Hindi and Urdu, there was no more confirmation needed for his Indian-ness.

Alter, son of American missionary parents whose family moved to India from Ohio way back in 1916, may be familiar to Bollywood fans for playing roles of tyrant jailers, British police officers and Raj-era lords and generals but ironically, his theatre image was quite the opposite. While Bollywood stereotyped him as an India-hating colonial the stage provided a much-needed redeeming grace. It was on stage that he took on much more meaningful acts playing a wide variety of Indian patriots. He has enacted Maulana Azad in both films and theatre. In the recent play Mohan Se Mahatma, he was Mahatma Gandhi. “Gandhi was a dubla-patla Gujarati. My idea was not to mimic but to honour him,” the actor said in July, when the play – based on Gandhi’s first Satyagraha in Champaran – was staged. Alter was fascinated by history and had expressed a wish to play Jawaharlal Nehru and Jinnah on stage. “”I have played so many roles, but playing Nehru and Jinnah on stage should be exciting. We haven’t explored the lives of these people,” he was reported to have said some years ago.

However, as a child, Alter was more interested in sports than cinema. He went on to keep that passion alive by his involvement as a sports teacher and his cricket writing over the years. In fact, Sachin Tendulkar’s first TV interview was with Alter, which naturally went viral upon its discovery some years ago. But Rajesh Khanna’s Aradhana in 1969 changed the course of Alter’s life. Inspired by Khanna’s crazy stardom, he came to Mumbai to try his luck in acting. “I didn’t know who Rajesh Khanna was before Aradhana. But in just one week I saw that film at least thrice,” Alter said in a Rajya Sabha TV interview. He had just returned from an American university then and was consumed by a singular passion for cinema. He soon enrolled at the FTII in Pune. Though it would have been a dream to share screen space with his idol Rajesh Khanna Alter was not so lucky. It was with Dharmendra that he got his first break. The film was Charas in 1976. It was followed by Shatranj Ke Khilari, the legendary Satyajit Ray’s first Hindi film. Here, he got a chance to indulge in his other passion – a love for Urdu poetry. His character Captain Weston introduces General Outram (Richard Attenborough) to the language, people and poetry of India. In an early scene from the film, Alter recites Wajid Ali Shah’s verse, proving his impeccable command and diction of Urdu, a language that has shaped Alter’s life.

Fresh out of FTII, Alter had recalled going up to Dilip Kumar, one of his favourite stars and asking for his acting recipe. “Poetry,” the thespian replied, unhesitatingly. “For the last forty years, I am both confused and ecstatic by Dilip saab’s reply,” said Alter in a recent interview. “I know poetry has been his life. Just like it has been a part of every great actor’s life, from Raj Kapoor and Dev Anand to Naseeruddin Shah and Shabana Azmi. When I look back, I consider myself lucky that my entire family have been poetically inclined.” As a child, Alter would be made to read the Bible in Urdu by his father, a priest. In later years, his love for the language inspired him to play such great Urdu literary figures as Ghalib, Sahir Ludhianvi and Bahadur Shah Zafar on stage.

In a career spanning four decades, Alter has appeared in hundreds of films. Cinema, Urdu poetry and cricket have remained his true passions. And though theatre gave him a much more open platform to display his wares, the stage was never his first love. “My friends are surprised even today about why I chose to become an actor,” he said on Rajya Sabha TV.

“I have always wanted to be a sportsman. There’s no sport in the world that I haven’t given a shot at. Sports is my real love.”

(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai.)

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