Tom Alter

Doyen of dignity

Print edition : October 27, 2017

Tom Alter at the launch of a collection of poems by school students, in Bengaluru on January 3, 2008. Photo: G.P. Sampath Kumar

Tom Alter (1950-2017) carved a unique space for himself in Hindi cinema and television and played a major role in reviving Urdu theatre with his robust portrayals.

TOM ALTER lost his battle with skin cancer in Mumbai on September 29. He won the battle of life, though. In the world of Hindi cinema, which often deifies its popular heroes, he did not quite manage to enter the pantheon, but he did manage to carve out a niche uniquely his own. He never quite coveted greatness, but it did shake hands with him. The best were happy to work with him: Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Richard Attenborough, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Chetan Anand, Manoj Kumar, Dev Anand, M.S. Sathyu, Ketan Mehta… the list goes on.

Tom’s tryst with cinema can be traced to Shakti Samanta’s 1969 superhit Aradhana, starring Rajesh Khanna, which impressed him so much that he decided on a career in cinema and applied to the Film and Television Institute in Pune. So good was he that of 800 hopefuls he made it to the list of three chosen from north India: the others were Benjamin Gilani and Phuntsok Ladakhi.

The nodding acquaintance with Gilani soon led to a relationship of faith and trust. The two joined hands to form Motley Productions, a theatre group formed along with Naseeruddin Shah, which kept alive the actors’ keen desire to keep in touch with lovers of their craft. Gilani had an innings of some substance. Shah became something of a cult hero in parallel cinema. Tom kept coming back to theatre, initially every now and then; in recent years more regularly. Not many would have forgotten his portrayal of a Malta-based sleuth in his debut film, Charas (1976). Or as Captain Weston in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khiladi. His impeccable Urdu and ability to communicate with viewers through silence stood him in good stead in Ray’s film. Many who did not expect a British character to indulge in poetry or be immersed in Awadhi culture were in for a shock; with one performance Tom demolished all stereotypes about white actors in Hindi cinema: a fair-skinned man did not have to speak accented Hindi or Urdu, nor did he need to wield guns or chase girls. He made an impact too with a little part in Gandhi. Just as he did with Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili. Tom, as the heroine’s brother, was picture perfect, his diction doing nothing to detract attention from a weather-beaten face. Throw in Manoj Kumar’s Kranti, where he worked with Dilip Kumar, who emphasised the importance of knowing poetry, to lend depth to a character, and you begin to have a fair estimate of the worth of Tom Alter.

Often he got typecast as the villain’s phoren sidekick or the much-hated British out to make things difficult for Indians. Subhash Ghai’s Karma comes to mind, and lesser lights like T.P. Aggarwal and Shyam Ramsay were as guilty in films like Bharat Bhagya Vidhata and Dhund. Of course, Tom was also Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Musa, the hoodlum in Parinda. A little later he impressed audiences as Lord Mountbatten in Sardar, Ketan Mehta’s take on Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

To dream merchants, he was quite a package. He could wield a gun, he could recite poetry, and he could enact figures from history. His malleability made him a reliable proposition. He could be thrown into any role, as a pahari, a Britisher or a simple lover of Urdu poetry, and he would deliver with no fuss, no attitude, no airs. Yet, he did not quite have the charisma for popular, mainstream cinema. Critics would often like his performance; discerning viewers too admired what they saw. Unfortunately, that did not always translate into bookings at the box office. At the turnstiles his was not a formidable name. A nice add-on, he was not a head-turner, a man who could get the masses to queue up. But Tom was not one to cry over such limitations. He could raise his craft according to the moment. He could also dumb down as per the script.

And when cinema inspired him only in fits and starts, he found solace in television, where he got a better range of well-etched roles. His performance as Keshav Kalsi in the megaseries Junoon is still talked about. Those grey around the ears happily recall Betaal Pachisi. Those busy playing with their toddlers now would recall Shaktimaan and Captain Vyom. And their elder siblings would have enjoyed Zabaan Sambhal ke. They were all small screen magic. They all presented Tom Alter in eminently likeable roles, roles which made him a household name among middle-class families. Women liked what they saw on screen; kids loved him. And men liked him too. Here was a man who was masculine in a pleasant kind of way, non-physical, and certainly cerebral. Again, with a combination of his skills and a good choice of roles, he was able to transcend the ethnicity barrier: yet again, he proved that on the small screen, like the big screen, a white man could be the man next door, not just a British officer shouting instructions to minions.

Tom’s first love was Urdu. And the stage presented him with the chance to showcase his skills like none other. At a time when Urdu theatre was in decline, he imparted it a robust dignity with the portrayal of the likes of Bahadur Shah Zafar, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, and Asadullah Khan Ghalib. If in cinema his name was one among many in the credits, in theatre it was a banner headline. If Tom Alter was associated with a play, a viewer could be sure of its standing, its dignity, its ability to communicate with the audiences without shouting from the rooftops. His subtlety made him quite a darling on the Urdu stage. The way he turned his eyes, the way his fingers fumbled, the way he left his mouth half open as he sought to bring alive an ageing poet or a political leader… everything left an indelible imprint.

As Ghalib or Zafar he had the audience spellbound. He recited couplets from their works as if he had been born in the lap of mushairas—in reality he was a third-generation American in India born in Mussoorie and educated at the Woodstock School. He even went to the United States to pursue higher studies before realising India was what enthralled his soul. Indeed, Tom Alter could be so self-effacing that offstage it was difficult to understand that this was the person who whipped up magic on it. That also explains the durable bond he struck with the theatre director-actor Sayeed Alam. With Alam as Zauq, Tom could be Zafar. He could be Ghalib too when the mood overtook him. However, whether he played the legendary Urdu poet or the pivotal political leader or a fading Mughal monarch was immaterial. To lovers of theatre, Tom Alter was the hero. If the cinema was guilty of underestimating his worth, theatre repaid him with interest.

Fittingly, Tom hosted the Jashn-e-Maazi festival, wherein he showed us 19 of his portrayals, including that of Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Azad, Rabindranath Tagore, Manto, Sahir Ludhianvi, Albert Einstein and Bahadur Shah Zafar. This combination of English-Hindi and Urdu plays got a rousing reception from his fans. Everything was right, except the name. Tom Alter belonged not to maazi, the past, but to mustaqbil, the present and the future. He showed the way to many with his flawless Urdu, the elasticity of his body, the flexibility of his emotions. If in the stereotype world of cinema and television he rewrote the script for the typical white saheb, in the world of theatre he brought the lovers of the medium back to the auditorium solely on his name, his art and his craft.

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