The one and only time I met Tom Alter was at the first in a series of cultural gatherings called Yun Hi Idhar Udhar Ki , held at Rangparn, a small studio tucked away in Andheri’s Laxmi Industrial Estate. An informal, unstructured conversation between two artistes and the audience these baithaks (get-togethers) are all about reclaiming a liberal corner in an increasingly polarised, divided, intolerant world. Poems are recited, stories read, songs sung, films shown, fine conversations and fiery but civilised debates had. All to take the so-called high arts and literature back to the people and stress on the country’s pluralistic, secular culture and the communally and culturally harmonious Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb .
Sharing the stage with Taqi Imam, poet, writer and co-curator of the initiative, Tom sa’ab , as he was fondly called, read Nida Fazli’s beautiful nazm, ‘ Maa ’, spoke about how he stayed at Kaifi Azmi’s home when he first came to Mumbai and how Dilip Kumar had told him once that the secret of good acting was knowing, understanding and internalising poetry. In a brief, informal chat after the event he promised to write a free-flowing column for the Bombay Showcase pages of The Hindu .
Alter’s presence and participation in the event that day underlined the most significant aspect of Alter’s personality, one, which, most times, got overshadowed by the more public persona of the film actor—that of intense cultural assimilation and adaptation. He integrated with, understood and represented the diversity and complexity of the country’s culture like no one else. The clarity with which he read out another of Fazli’s works that day—‘ Karachi ek maa hai, Bambai bichhada hua beta ’ (Karachi is the mother and Bombay her estranged son)—and the sensitivity and persuasiveness with which he explained the poet’s assertion that the relationship of love between the two cities can’t be overrun by hatred left most of us in the audience with goosebumps.
“He was the epitome of the pluralistic Indian culture and was unhappy with the current environment,” remembers Imaam. “He broke the typical mould of a foreigner in India with his interest in and understanding of the culture and languages, both Hindi and Urdu. He was a cultural ambassador,” says film and music expert Pavan Jha. Alter’s Padma Shri in 2008 then was more than well-deserved.
No wonder Alter hated being asked about his nationality, whether he was Indian or not. “He would get very angry if such a question was thrown at him. In fact, if you’d ask him a question in English, he would reply in chaste Hindi,” remembers Imaam also who wrote and co-directed one of Alter’s favourite serials— Yahan Ke Hum Sikandar —that played on DD National. In a way it mirrored his own life. In the serial Alter plays a missionary school teacher in the UP small town of Bijnaur. His father is supposed to have been an Englishman who refused to go back in 1947 because he had fallen in love with Bijnaur. Alter, himself, was of American descent. His grandparents are said to have migrated to India from Ohio in 1916 to finally settle down in Lahore. They kept living there after the Partition even as Alter’s parents moved to India. He grew up in Uttarakhand—Dehradun and Mussorie. Though some of his family members did move to the USA later, he continued to be at home in India.
Love for cinema
It was the putting him in a box because of his lineage and looks that limited his career in films. Not for his fault but due to the limited imagination of the Bollywood filmmakers. He was the fair, blue-eyed Tom, Jack, Harry, Mark, Charles and Martin—the foreigner or the Anglo-Indian—in film after film and the quintessential British officer in the historicals. He even played Vishwapramukh, the head of a “world government” in a fantasy TV serial Captain Vyom . Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985) where he was Ganga’s elder brother, Karam Singh, Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda (1989) where he was the underworld don Musa and Prakash Jha’s Loknayak (2004) in which he was Abul Kalam Azad must have been a few notable exceptions to the rule. His best, according to himself, was Don Keshav Kalsi in the TV series Junoon.
“There is a certain mindset with which Bollywood writes characters with English background who can speak in Hindi. He broke that cliché with his natural way with the language. He never diluted it, didn’t make it sound alien or comic,” says Jha. Despite the limitations he worked with some of the major icons of the day — Satyajit Ray for Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), M.S. Sathyu for the Kannada film Kanneshwara Rama (1977), Dev Anand in Des Pardes (1978), with Dilip Kumar in Manoj Kumar’s Kranti (1981) , played Lord Mountbatten in Ketan Mehta’s Sardar (1993) and also worked in The Rising: Ballad of Mangal Pandey (2005) and Rang Rasiya (2008). He even worked with Peter O’Toole in a Hollywood film called One Night With A King and also had a small role in Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982).
An alumnus of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), he was currently honorary head of the department of acting at FTII. Alter’s career in cinema, however, began with being a Rajesh Khanna fan, more specifically being smitten by Shakti Samanta’s Aradhana (1969). It made him a film addict. Perhaps the only film in which Alter shared credits with Khanna was Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s surreal Naukri (1978).
His innings though on the big screen opened with Ramanand Sagar’s Charas (1976) where he played the “Chief Custom Officer”, Dharmendra’s boss. Film and history buff K.V. Ramesh remembers reading an interview where Alter spoke about being popular in Punjab as “Dharmendra da boss”. He played Captain Weston, the aide de camp to Richard Attenborough’s General James Outram in Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi . He was the Britisher in love with Urdu shayari, the crucial guy who explains local culture and the Nawab’s mindset to Outram. Later, he also got typecast as the bad guy. He was the villain Dr Dang’s henchman in Subhash Ghai’s Karma (1986). Ramesh remembers him as the “evil foreign hand out to destroy India” in a “ Bourne Identit -like Avinash” (1986) with Mithun Chakraborty as the amnesiac hero.
The popular TV serials he acted in included Bharat Ek Khoj, Zabaan Sambhal Ke and Shaktimaan while his work in theatre spanned wide. He founded the group Motley with Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani with a performance of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot . He also worked with Delhi-based group Pierrot’s Troupe. He was part of the prestigious theatrical reproduction of William Dalrymple's City of Djinns . Alter presented a festival of his various plays titled Jashn-e-Maazi: The Play of History featuring his portrayal of leading historical figures such as Maulana Azad, Ghalib, Manto, Sahir, Tagore, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Einstein and Gandhi. He was also impeccable as a narrator of several documentaries and TV shows.
Imaam remembers his rare grace; how even while working with lesser known or unknown actors he would give them their space onstage. “He wouldn’t dominate. He had that spirit of largesse,” he remembers. Co-curator of Yun Hi Idhar Udhar Ki Anupama Bose remembers him taking an acting Masterclass with differently-abled actors at an event in Delhi. There was a major technical hitch with the mic but he kept improvising for over 45 minutes and then went on for one and half hours with the session without throwing a fit, storming out or complaining. “He had tremendous respect for the actors who had gathered there for the session,” recollects Bose, while calling him the most “welcoming, forthcoming, warm and collaborative,” celebrity she has ever worked with.
Then there was the athletic side to him—the passion for sports like badminton, hockey and cricket, cycling all the way from Mussorie to Delhi or running down from Mussorie all the way to Rajpur Road in Dehradun. Alter wrote several columns on cricket and was memorably the first person to interview Sachin Tendulkar for TV before his debut. He was also a member of the film industry cricket team.
Alter also had several published works to his credit. His novel Rerun At Rialto was a mix of love story, thriller and whodunit that starts and ends at an old cinema hall. “It is a slim Ruskin Bondish book that he wanted to make into a film some day,” says Bose. He never got down to doing it. She also remembers making shorsche maach (mustard fish) for the foodie Alter for the dinner after the Yun Hi Idhar Udhar Ki session. He couldn’t stay on for it because of a recording but promised to come back another day. He never could. And that promised column for The Hindu was also never meant to be.