Tom Alter rewinds to days when Urdu was part of the upbringing and patience didn’t come in the way of progress

From Maulana Azad and Ghalib to Sahir Ludhianvi recently, Tom Alter has become our best known face to play characters that require polished Urdu. Interestingly, this son of an American priest, who settled in Mussoorie, got his first brush with the language through Bible.

“To me it was ‘Injeel’. But it was nothing unusual. That time everybody spoke Urdu. At home my father and mother could read and write Urdu. The hymns were in Urdu. More than the poets it was the Old Testament that introduced me to Urdu. It is called Purana Ahdnama.” He recites, “Main Apni Aankhen Pahadon Ki Taraf Uthata Hoon Mera Talluq Kahan Se Hai, Mera Talluq Khudaband Se Hai…” as he prepares a blend of Eliot and Azad for a poetic soiree at New Delhi’s Le Meridien where chai happened to be the common link. “Azad was fond of tea and Eliot has described it in “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufock”, he relates.

“I am not a religious person but all the Church services were in Urdu. Even today from Peshawar all the way up to Allahabad the Christians usually worship in Urdu. When I was in High School I was aware that there is somebody called Ghalib and that there is Mir but as I was in Woodstock we didn’t study them. We should have. Even in English medium schools they should be taught. There is more emphasis on Hindi these days in Woodstock, Sher-o-shayari ki baat hoti hai,” he returns to his tale. He recalls how his Hindi teacher took the class to watch Kabuliwala. “It was my first brush with Hindi cinema.”

It was at Jagadhri in Haryana, where as a 19-year-old he came to teach in a missionary school that his love for poetry took shape. It was also the place where he realised the colour of his skin is going to be his first introduction. “In Mussoorie if somebody had called me ‘Oh Angrez’ I would have slapped him. But I could not do it in Jagadhri. After a couple of days the fascination would get over and a genuine relationship would blossom.” At Jagadhri he also fell in love with the persona of Rajesh Khanna and it took him to Film Institute in Pune.

There again he faced the same mental block. “By the second day they would realise that I am not an Englishman. There were two-three stubborn people, who felt that I am an alien but ultimately it proved to be their loss. There is a famous director who dropped me after casting me because he felt I will leave the country in a couple of years.” But then there were directors like Manoj Kumar, Manmohan Desai, Dev Anand and Ramanand Sagar, who embraced Alter like their brother. “Manoj Kumar and I are still like brothers. We talked half the time in Punjabi,” he recollects the vestiges of a cherished past.

Countering the perception that he was a stereotyped as a foreigner, who spoke in stilted Hindi, Alter says Charas was his first film where Ramanand Sagar had cast him as an Interpol officer, who spoke in Hindi. “I played Dharmendra’s boss in the film, which was not an easy thing in those days. I was 24 and Dharamji was 40. My character was always explained as this is a white man, who speaks in Hindi. I never spoke like ‘Tum Kidhar Ko Jata Hai.’ But some people still have that impression. Out of the 250 odd films that I did I would have used stilted Hindi only in two-three films.”

Charas was followed by Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Hum Kisi Se Kum Nahin and Chameli Memsahib where Alter was the hero. “After Charas I was accepted in this industry as an actor who could act in Hindi. My origin was never explained.” He rates Shatranj Ke Khiladi as his best work in those days. “Sometimes when you look back at your work you like to exclaim what was I doing but Ray (Satyajit Ray) gave me a difficult part at the beginning of my career and I could justify his faith. Unfortunately, the film didn’t get its due.”

Hurt by the politics played over the natural calamity in Uttarakhand, Alter says it was combination of human excess and Nature’s fury. “There are floods every year. People don’t go during monsoons. This year the rain came very early. Last year Uttarkashi was flooded and around 400 people died. Since they were not pilgrims, nobody got to know. Even now local people have also lost their kin but nobody is talking about them. No politician is talking about them.”

He says tourists have a big responsibility. “I have not been to Badrinath but I have been told that half of the glacier was rubbish, full of plastic which the tourists have brought there.” He suggests it is time to go back to the conduct the pilgrimage as it is prescribed in the scriptures. “My cousin Stephen (Alter) did it many years back. When you go on pilgrimage you are not expected to carry any money nor do you carry a watch. You should not have a sense of time. Stephen went on foot from Lakshman Jhoola and returned after three months. And it resulted in “Sacred Waters”, a wonderful book where he had predicted what all is happening now. It is time to rewind to good old practices.”

Alter says the element of tapasya is going out of our lives. “In the US there was a term ‘Keeping up with the Jones’. Now in India it has become keeping up with the Chopras. If Mr. Chopra has two cars, you should have at least two as well. I don’t want to sound sanctimonious but the children should spend the 15-16 years of their lives in activities from which they don’t expect any return, or fruit. It is like their bank deposit on which they will get return for the rest of their lives but what is happening now is that an 11-year-old is dreaming to have a platform in the form of Indian Idol and IPL by 18,” says Alter, who has commented on cricket for many years.

“When history will judge these times it will find that the generation was more about quantity than quality. Until you give something, you can’t expect the returns. Take cricket for instance. They are killing the golden goose by reducing the game to 20 overs. I said it when they shifted the cricket headquarters from London to Dubai that it is the beginning of the end. Those who say there is no audience for Test cricket should just have a look at the Ashes. The stadiums are full and they are busy people. If you organise something similar with Pakistan after every couple of years, I guarantee the stadiums will be jam packed.” He cites the example of his favourite Rajesh Khanna. “He was a star 40 years ago but his songs still dominate music channels and radio stations. There must be some quality for channels don’t play even two-year-old songs. Can we expect something like this for this generation? There is still hope…” he signs off with a sigh.