No "Alter"native to TOM ALTER
Indeed, he is one of a kind. A Caucasian of American descent, he is as Indian as they come. The veteran actor sits down with Khabar to discuss his rich career and why he’d rather be known as a proud Indian than the perennial “Englishman” of Hindi cinema.
Dressed in a kafni (long, flowing top) over casual pants, Tom Alter speaks without hesitation or hurry, responding sincerely in his baritone voice. His diction is impeccable, whether he’s speaking in English or drifting off in Hindi. A consummate creative personality, Alter is an actor, playwright, director, sportsman, and philosopher. He is well-read, well-spoken, and, having acted in hundreds of films, brimming with insight into India’s movie industry. Visiting Atlanta recently to perform an Urdu play on Maulana Azad, he’s accompanied by the play’s director and script writer Dr. Sayeed Alam, who also answers a question during the interview.
Please tell us of your family background in terms of your roots. How different was your perspective growing up in Mussoorie, in a pre-independent India?
Alter: Well, I was born in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, India. My grandparents had come to India from Ohio in 1916 as missionaries of a Presbyterian Church. My father was born in Sialkot, now in Pakistan. He came back to the U.S. for college and got married to my mother, just like the thousands of us Indians do. They had their first child, my sister in 1944 and returned to India with family in 1945. They continued living in India till my father got very ill. At the end of his life, he got diabetes and unfortunately, they had to return to the U.S. in 1981 and he passed away. Until then, they had no desire to leave India.
What drew you to acting?
Alter: I acted in school and college, so the interest was there but the thought of working in Hindi films never crossed my mind until I was about 20. I was working in a small town in Haryana called Jaghadhiri, working at a school there. In a small town like Jagadhiri in North India, in 1970, nobody watched foreign films, as no English films were shown, so I got totally hooked onto Hindi films. And this happened to coincide with the rise of Rajesh Khanna, my favorite actor. He was the one who inspired me, not by his words but by his performances, to join films. It was him and Sharmila Tagore. She gets 25 percent and Rajesh Khanna gets 75 percent for the combined influence of cinema on my senses.
I kept working until 1972, when I joined Film Institute in Pune, because I realized that I did not know enough about acting to consider working in a film career. It was very tough to get admission in the Institute but by chance I got in. I spent two fantastic years there, returned to Mumbai in 1974 and have been there ever since.
You are most known for your historic roles such as in films like Kranti. Was it by choice or happenstance?
Alter: This is an image of me that was created, which is actually incorrect. My very first film, Charas, with Dharmendra and Hema Malini, is not a period film but a spy thriller in which I played Dharmendra’s boss. The next film was Hum Kisi se Kam Nahi, Nasir Hussain’s last great film, in which I played Amjad Khan’s helicopter pilot, so nothing periodic about that. The third commercially successful film was Des Pardes, which happened to be Dev Anand’s last film and that was not a period film either. … I have done more than 350 films. Out of them, you may find hardly ten that qualify me as the “perennial angrez”! To top it, in that image, Kranti was a super-duper hit, but there were two other very fine periodic films made by two top directors of the time, Shyam Benegal and Satyajit Ray, with both movies being shot simultaneously, Junoon and Shatranj Ke Khiladi. I was the only common factor in both films. At the same time I also happened to be shooting for a film called Chameli Memsaab, which not many people know about and was certainly not a period film. I was the main hero in the film and it was set in the tea estates of Darjeeling. Shooting for Chameli Memsaab, Junoon and Shatranj ke Khiladi simultaneously for about a year was a wonderful time, because I was shuttling back and forth between Lucknow, Kolkata, and Darjeeling.
From films to theatre, what was the migration like? Were you doing stuff in theatre at all, when doing films simultaneously?
Alter: No. Naseeruddin Shah was one year junior to us at the film institute, so once we were together, Benjamin Gilani, Naseer, and I thought of starting a theatre company. But it was only talk at the time. I came in 1974 and Naseeer came in 1975. Interestingly he got work quite soon and was very happy. Around 1978, mainly after Naseer’s initiative, Ben, Naseer, and I agreed. Naseer was doing some theatre in Bombay, staging a very famous American play called The Zoo Story. Naseer asked me to play a role. It was a very tough play and we had our goal set on another, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. That was the beginning of 1980 and we formed the group called Motley Productions, just the three of us. We staged Godot and it became a part of legend in English theatre and our performances. We ended up staging 50 performances of the play with Naseer and Ben, and I can say I have never seen an English theatrical presentation on an Indian stage any better than what Naseer and Ben had done. I started doing different plays with others, and in 2002 Alam Saab came to me with Maulana script and we did the first show at the end of 2002.
Why Maulana? How did you come into that character?
Alter: It was Alam Saab’s vision. He showed up at my door and was a total stranger then. He brought the script. I sat down and this has now become a part of Indian theatre legend because he brought me the script in Roman and I said I want it in Urdu. I didn’t want to read Urdu through Roman. He then brought me the script in Urdu and it was an immense challenge but he spent a month with me in Bombay. It was very tough for me but we worked very hard. Why he chose me as a Maulana, only he knows.
So Alam Saab, what did you see in Tom? It’s an antithesis to the roles he has generally played, but obviously the play is super successful, so…
Alam: That is not true! In fact there is no Indian-looking artist that fitted the character. The reason being, Tom speaks Urdu without an accent, be it closer to Punjabi Urdu or Bangla Urdu or Bihari Urdu. I wanted an actor who speaks Urdu in its natural way and accent neutral, and I had seen this in Tom’s Shatranj ke Khiladi and was very impressed. I found Tom to be the only one who was speaking Urdu naturally and disappointed along with Satyajit Ray with the other casts in the movie. Thus I decided to give Tom a try for this historic role. I have also heard that Maulana Azad’s features were very sharp and he was very fair also. I felt that he would fit into the character, as far as physical traits are concerned. However, people discouraged me because of his “angrez” (English) perception. I replied that Maulana was also angrez as far as his features and hair was concerned. He was then called the “Irani shehzada.” He was tall, handsome, fair skin, and had sharp features but that was not the main issue for me. I wanted to have an actor who had a sound background as far as literature was concerned … I wanted someone who was an intellectual besides being a good actor.
From your prospective, Tom, what motivated you?
Alter: My connection with Maulana is very deep. My father was a great admirer of Maulana. When we grew up, we heard his name mentioned many times. Maulana’s impression was very strong in my mind. My father never sat down for discussions but we used to discuss Maulana a lot. So there was already some connection and the way Alam Saab approached it—he said a lot of good things—don’t try to mimic Maulana. I made it a point of not watching Maulana on film or anything, albeit the play is a large part of Indian freedom. I intentionally did not even read the book. My play is this interpretation of Maulana, so if I looked around into other things, it may misdirect me and be of no great use. We shared a couple similarities: one is that Maulana loved to be alone. I also love to be alone. Maulana was very egoistic and, very frankly, I should say that everyone is, and I am, too. Maulana loved words, which is poetry, speaking, reading, etc., and I also do the same thing. These gave me an insight into him and made me very comfortable with the text of the play.
Your other interest is sports, something very different from acting.
Alter: No, they are the same thing.
How can you say that?
Alter: Sports and acting are very similar things. You see, when you play any sports, especially cricket, you are alone. When you act, you are alone. When you are batting in cricket, the concentration, the ability, reaction is like acting. It’s the same thing. If you react to a ball you are finished. What happened to Sachin, at one point of his career instead of acting to his ball he began to react to his ball and he lost his magic. Otherwise every ball that comes is like a dialogue when the actor is in full flow, you don’t know when dialogues have begun, because she/he starts speaking before the thought appears. The similarities are endless; the confidence, coordination, etc. Acting is a physical thing, just like in sports. You may not be the fittest person in the world, but as an actor, if you are not physically fit, you are limiting yourself to what you can do, and you could see many cricketers are not physically fit and they limit themselves.
You spoke about acting, theatre, writing, sports…any memoirs in the making?
Alter: I just got an email from a publishing house asking about my memoirs, and I told them, let me create some memoirs first. It’s a bit early to write memoirs. Memoirs are written by people who are in their last stage or end of career. I have written three books: one is on cricket and two are novels. Anybody who knows me well knows that the books are about myself. Both my novels—one is based in Mussoorie and one is based in Rajpur—are basically part of my own stories.
From the time you started in the movie industry until now, how much has it changed? And has it moved into the direction of your liking?
Alter: On the positive side, our industry used to have certain predictable themes and stories where films used to revolve around. Those things have been shattered and since Lagaan until today, storylines are very bold and different. I think this is the tremendous change as we’ve gotten out of the rut. The stereotypical is broken now. The negative side is that it has become a corporate affair and that personal touch is gone.
What are your comments about the intercultural exchange? Indian actors are acting in Hollywood films. And foreign-born actors are attempting to make a mark in Bollywood.
Alter: They do not stay. They come and go. They have cameo roles. … Some come and dance, fight in Bollywood movies. This is not how it is done. You have to go there and live, and make it your home. The people who are now actually coming to Bombay are not white. The Indians who have settled in Great Britain, they are coming in great numbers back. They cannot speak Hindi.
Come to India, stay and live here and improve your language, and then consider acting. But they don’t get that connection with the country. So when someone calls me an Angrez (Englishman), it is as good as cursing me out. I am a Hindustani and proud of it.
Anupam has done many good roles in Hollywood films. Naseer has done one or two fine films. … Gulzar wrote a song for Slumdog Millionaire and I called him to say “yeh kya likha hai apne?” He replied that he was there to receive an Oscar, what can he do if that is what the audience appeal is? Only Mahesh Bhatt had the guts to call Amir Khan when he failed to get the recognition for Lagaan and said what is an Oscar that is not leveled with the love of hundreds of thousands of Indians who went, saw, and loved your film? Why not respect them for their judgment for a movie that you made for them and not the rest of the world. If Slumdog Millionaire was released in India, I suspect it would not have earned a single Filmfare Award.
Would you like to say anything to your Atlanta fans?
Alter: I have one challenge for Indians in Atlanta. If someone can tell me who Hank Aaron is and how many home runs he has hit, I will touch their feet. When people come to India as missionaries from abroad, they don’t know much about the success of the locals, and likewise, if we Indians who reside here don’t know who Hank Aaron is and what is his best—we have not justified our stay here. It was in Atlanta where Hank broke Babe Ruth’s record and got death threats because he was black. He was a subject of a lot of hate and abuse. Hence our people living here must learn and realize what Hank did and what he went through. We will improve our efforts in assimilation.
Viren Mayani is a senior Bollywood and music contributor at Khabar.
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