Telling a story in different ways
He's a familiar face from the silver screen but there's more to Tom Alter than just playing the foreigner and the villain.
PHOTO: RAHUL CHANDAWARKAR
An Urdu expert: Getting ready for his role as Maulana Azad.
FIRST, a little story. It is the early 1970s. The Hindi film, "Charas", is being shot in Mumbai. The late Amjad Khan (of Gabbar Singh fame) walks up to actor Tom Alter and starts groping for a microphone in Tom's shirt pockets.
"Kahan hain, kahan hain, ye microphone, aapne kahan chupa raka hain? Kaun baat kar raha hain? Tum to nahin ho!" (Where is it? Where have you hidden this microphone? Who is speaking? It's not you!) Amjad is believed to have said in exasperation.
Recalling the incident, actor Tom Alter laughs, "It was my first meeting with Amjad. I was standing close to him and conversing with a friend in Hindi, when Amjad reacted the way he did. He was obviously teasing me."
Perhaps, the famous screen villain, was actually as perplexed, as some of us still are, when we come across Tom "gora aadmi" Alter conversing in chaste Urdu, let alone Hindi. So accustomed are we to Tom's gora aadmi (white man) persona on screen that we almost assume that he landed in India yesterday, directly from the United States of America!
Childhood in the hills
It is intriguing, therefore to learn that Tom (55) and his two siblings (an older sister and brother) actually grew up speaking Urdu at home with their American missionary parents in the hills of Mussoorie.
"In my childhood in Mussoorie, we grew up speaking Hindustani (a mix of Hindi and Urdu). Urdu was also spoken at home, as both my parents, especially my father, loved the language. He used to read the Bible in Urdu. Most of the church services that we attended were also in Urdu," recalls Tom.
Today, Tom can read, write and speak the language. And while the journey began in the hills of Mussoorie, Tom actually began mastering Urdu in Pune as a student in the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in the early 1970s.
"I began learning the language from Mohammed Rafique, a dear friend in Pune. Later in Mumbai, I learnt the language for seven years from Ustad Jalib Mazaheri, the Ustad for Dilip Kumar's family," says Tom.
Today, Tom is an Urdu expert — having recently completed 30 performances of the soul stirring, solo play, "Maulana Azad". He portrays the national leader, for a good two and a half hours on stage, mouthing only chaste Urdu.
So convincing is he as Azad, that a spectator in Hyderabad is reported to have remarked, "Tom bhai, hum drama nahin dek rahe the. Hum to aap ke saath ibadat kar rahe the." (We were not watching a play. We were praying with you).
However, there is more to Tom, than his Urdu prowess. Tom is a multi-faceted personality, who wears many hats. He has been a sports journalist, writing a regular column for a newspaper and a magazine. He was also probably the first person to do a video interview with Sachin Tendulkar in 1988, when the maestro was just 15.
On the sports field, Tom has been an enthusiastic triathlete (swimming-running-cycling) and even organised the first national triathlon in the early 1990s with swimmer Anita Sood and swimming coach, the late Sandeep Divgikar in Mumbai. If that is not enough, he has played active basketball and still continues playing about 30-odd cricket matches in a year, for a Mumbai-based club.
And wait, there is more! Not only is Tom an accomplished journalist, he is also a writer. After a book on cricket with journalist Ayaz Memon, he is also the proud author of Rerun at Rialto, a mystery novel, set in his hometown, Mussoorie.
In fact, come October and his latest book The Longest Race, based on the life of a young marathon runner, is set to hit bookstores across the country.
However, it is acting, which keeps him most occupied — both films and theatre. While several films, including "The Rising" starring Aamir Khan, have just hit the screens; others like a Bengali film on Tagore, a Konkani film "Sud", an English film called "Hangman", where Om Puri plays the title role, are set to be released shortly.
On the stage, he is involved in five concurrent projects. To start with, he is acting in Delhi-based Sayeed Alam's Urdu play, "K.L. Saigal" and the much acclaimed, "Maulana Azad"; then his home production "Trisanga" with two very good friends; in Anurag Kashyap's "When God said Cheers"; in Shivani Tibrewal's "Whatever You Say" and a short theatrical presentation with dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, where the duo read out letters between Mahatma Gandhi and Sarojini Naidu.
Flitting effortlessly from screen to stage and vice versa, Tom makes light of the effort. "It is actually easy," he says. "An actor's job is to tell a story. Hence, whether it is on screen or on stage, it is the same thing." But he is human after all.
He concedes that he cannot do plays with large casts. "I cannot do them, as there is no time for so many rehearsals," he says.
As the talk veers to films, he says his most memorable film, was "Chameli Memsaab" in which he played the hero. "I played an English tea estate manager, who falls in love with a local girl, working on the estate. It is a very romantic film released largely in Kolkata and North East India alone."
Focusing his thoughts on his favourite film directors, he singles out the late Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal for praise. Says Tom, "Shyam is like Ray. Shyam, too, is very methodical. He pays a lot of attention to the script, the characters, the costumes."
Recalling a shooting sequence from the film "Shatranj Ke Khiladi", in which Tom and Sir Richard Attenborough are together, Tom says that Ray never took a single retake for over one hour. "At one point, Sir Richard said to me: `Tom, are you sure Ray has any film in the camera. He is not taking a single retake.' But that was Ray. The scripts had been given to us, six months in advance. He had seen our rehearsals and now he seemed happy with our acting. In fact, after the shoot, he called Attenborough aside and praised him and later told me, `You are doing well. Keep it up'."
Today, Tom lives in the Bombay Central area of Mumbai with his teacher wife, Carol, a childhood sweetheart from Mussoorie. Their children, son, James and daughter Afshaan are both in the US. While James has just begun working, Afshaan is going to college. "We miss our children very much," says Tom, revealing the loving father in him.