The spitting image of Ghalib

If the Urdu poet Mirza Ghalib and Tom Alter, the actor who regularly reprised his final years on stage, had been convivial contemporaries, then they would have passed within just a few years of each other. Next year will mark ten years since Alter first took on the mantle of the Mughal-era troubadour in M Sayeed Alam’s Ghalib, which opened at Delhi’s Shriram Centre in 2008. The director has evocatively spoken of how his frequent muse is the spitting image of Ghalib (and he also says this of Alter’s other parts with him like Maulana Azad and Bahadur Shah Zafar), and when Alter walked on to stage in the trademark regalia — the Astrakhan hat and satin overcoat — it was difficult not to discern a likeness with the only imprint of Ghalib that survives. Alter was 67 when he crossed the great divide on September 30, around the same age as the venerated character he played.

In Alam’s play, Ghalib is living his last days out at Old Delhi’s Ballimaran ki Gali, and narrating the story of his life to his biographer, Maulana Altaf Hussein Hali. Three actors play the poet over a lifetime. Alter makes his entry just after Ghalib is seen as a young boy with Mir Taqi Mir, a childhood companion who becomes a poet of equally resplendent repute. “Life has both given and taken from (Ghalib) deeply and richly. So I must put myself into that mind and body set. Watching and feeling this scene makes my entry more believable for me and the audience,” Alter had once said in an interview. There has likely been a preponderance of stage actors who have played Ghalib, and there is no way of singling out a definitive performance, but Alter’s turn was much than just turning up as ‘the world’s only Urdu speaking gora’, as early promotional literature described him in tongue-in-cheek if reductive fashion. He had often spoken of Urdu as his ‘pidri zubaan’. “My father was a padre and used to recite the Bible in Urdu. The language has no religion,” he had said. A later play with Alam, Ghalib Ke Khat, saw him take on the additional part of Munshi Har Gopal ‘Taftah’, one of Ghalib’s brilliant disciples, hitherto banished into obscurity but now reinstated as a talent in his own right. And, in Lal Qile Ka Aakhri Mushaira, Alter plays the ageing emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, on whose behest a mythical mehfil of an entire pantheon of Urdu poets, including Ghalib, is assembled.

Another part that one might not associate with Alter is that of Mahatma Gandhi, which he happily took on in Asghar Wajahat’s Yadi, that was first staged in 2015. Due to audiences being so accustomed to Alter’s undeniably local flair, there was nothing subversive about a white man playing the Father of the Nation, who has moral confrontations with both allies like Jawaharlal Nehru and antagonists like Nathuram Godse. The sheer breadth and depth of Alter’s late-career stage output was seen earlier this year in March, during what was billed his dream theatre project — Jashn-e-Mazi The Play of History — in which, over 17 days and in as many plays, he performed an array of almost three dozen historical characters. The event can now be likened to an actor’s last stand, or his final hurrah, although Alter continued to appear on stage till at least July, this year. The preoccupation with enacting historical characters started with his very first collaboration with Alam and his Pierrot's Troupe in 2002, with a play on scholar and freedom fighter Azad. Over the last decade, Alter had been assiduously adding to this prolific repertoire, as if he were ticking names off a bucket list, and paying tribute to every icon who may have contributed to his growth as an individual. His limited oeuvre in films had constrained his range and our perception of it, but on stage, as Gandhi, Azad, Ghalib, Zafar, Rabindranath Tagore, Sahir Ludhianvi, K L Saigal, Neils Bohr, Albert Einstein or M F Hussain, he had turned the typecasting that beset him in cinema on its head several times over. And more was in the offing — he had spoken of never having played Nehru or Muhammad Ali Jinnah, complex characters he was itching to enact.

Alter’s stardom, usually attributed to his stint in mainstream cinema or his cricket commentary (he was the first to interview Sachin Tendulkar), ensured his theatrical parts all but had one foot into posterity. But beyond our fawning at celebrity, it was Alter’s chasteness of delivery in several tongues and his ability to transcend cultural expectations and both physically and viscerally embody his characters that allowed audiences to access the psyche of great souls in subliminal ways. As he once wrote in his blog (which has only one entry), “There is no such thing as destiny. The stars or numbers controls nothing. It is just that those who live a full life are more fortunate. Mirza Ghalib has said in a verse: The truth about heaven we all know; but to keep one’s heart content is a lovely thought.”

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Mar 2, 2021 11:32:07 AM |

Next Story