Who was Tom Alter? | The Indian Express

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Written by Sampada Sharma
| New Delhi |
Updated: September 30, 2017 10:28 am


Tom Alter, 67, passed away after a long battle with skin cancer.

Theatre and film actor Tom Alter, 67, passed away at his Mumbai residence on Saturday after a long battle with skin cancer.

With his suave caucasian looks, Tom Alter’s presence was hard to miss. His tall personality, tight grip over Hindi and Urdu and commanding screen presence, Tom was the man who created an impression as soon as one saw him. His piercing blue eyes were a giveaway to his American heritage but he was as Indian as one is.

Tom Alter was an important pillar of Hindi cinema and theatre but his journey started with the Dharmendra– starrer film, Charas, in 1976.

Being an actor was not his dream while growing up. In fact, the lad from Mussoorie grew up with an active interest in sports. Tom was accepted at Yale University but the conventional formal schooling was never his thing and so he returned after just a year. He went back to sports and became a teacher in Jagadhari, Haryana for a few months. Even after he became an actor, Tom continued to pursue his passion for sports by writing and interviewing sports personalities. He was the first man to interview the God of Cricket, Sachin Tendulkar, when the legend was only 15 years old.

Born and brought up in the secular city of Mussoorie, Tom was enrolled in Woodstock School. His parents were Christian missionaries in the city of mandirs and ashrams and it was this environment that taught Tom to respect all religions. The morning bells of temples and the ashram culture of the city intrigued him as a child and his father explained him that with Ganga flowing on one side and Yamuna on the other, they were in a divine place. Their dining table discussions were what shaped his formative mind. With active discussions on religion, partition, culture, Tom grew up as a man who was aware and open to contrasting points of view.

It was the 1969 film Aradhana starring Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore that changed Tom’s life. The film had such a deep impact on the young sports teacher’s mind that he packed his bags and left for FTII, Pune.

With mates like Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani, Tom was in august company which resulted in great friendships and an even more blossoming career. These were the days when the film institute in Pune was a sprawling hub for artists who loved their craft and Tom fit right in. Under the supervision of their guru, Roshan Taneja, the trio set up their theatre comapny, Motley Productions. Waiting for Godot was the first play under the company’s banner and with that Tom had discovered his true calling.

With films like Des Pardes (1978), Kranti (1981) and Karma (1986), Tom had established himself as the man who was the go-to guy for all firang roles in films. Some might call it stereotyping but at the time, Tom was creating a personality that became synonymous with villainous roles. In Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), Tom played the role of a British officer who is completely charmed by Urdu poetry and it was with this role that he proved that it was only his looks that were non-Indian, his command over Urdu was just unmatched.

His characters in Parinda (1989), Aashiqui (1990), Sardar (1993) made him even more popular but the television show Zabaan Sambhalke made him a household name. The show had him playing a British man who wants to learn Hindi and Tom did it with such ease that he completely shed the villainous image he had created over the years. With roles in other popular TV shows like Betaal Pachisi, Captain Vyom and Shaktimaan, Tom’s fan base grew even wider and now even the kids loved him.

His filmography consists a long list of roles where Tom played the evil British man but it was his work in the theatre circuit that fueled his passion for the craft and he continued to do that throughout his life. He was honoured with Padma Shri in 2008 for his contribution to Indian cinema.

Tom was seen in lesser films in his later years. Veer-Zaara (2004), The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey (2005), Bheja Fry (2007), M Cream (2012) featured the actor in prominent roles. His last appearance was in the 2017 film, Sargoshiyan.

With a career that lasted over three decades, Tom Alter has left a legacy that will always be remembered with respect and honour. After a long battle with skin cancer, the actor passed away on September 30, 2017 but his personality stays immortal.

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