Tom Alter passes away: Seasoned actor played 'angrez afsar' and Gandhi with equal elan

Gautam Chintamani

September 30, 2017 16:05:03 IST

The fact that a profession such as acting demands actors to change their ‘look’ ever so often, looks in the realm of popular cinema in India invariably end up being everything. Especially if you happened to a Tom Alter, the proverbial gora trying to crack Hindi films in India in the 1970s. The film and stage veteran who lost the battle against skin cancer earlier today, Tom Alter was the embodiment of the old adage that looks could be deceptive.

Born to American parents in 1950 in Mussoorie, Alter studied at Woodstock School before taking off to the US at 18 to pursue higher education. Upon his return, Alter taught for a brief period but it was the Rajesh Khanna-Sharmila Tagore film Aradhana (1969), which he watched upon its release with a  few friends, that made him want to be an actor.

tom alter

File image of Tom Alter

The ‘blue-eyed saheb’, who could speak flawless Hindi and Urdu, Mr Alter made his screen debut as the Chief Customs Officer in Ramanand Sagar’s Charas (1976) and gained popularity with his evil angrez afsar in Manoj Kumar’s Kranti (1980). Nestled in between the two was an appearance in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) that should have opened doors for him; but for a long period till the 1990s, Alter was doomed to play numerous variations of the typical white man in Hindi films.

A graduate of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) during its golden period, Tom Alter’s fellow students included Naseeruddin Shah, Benjamin Gilani and Shabana Azmi. He often credited his accomplishments as an actor to the time he spent at the institute and went on to form a theatre group, Motley Productions, along with Shah and Gilani.

In the 1990s, when India witnessed a television boom, Alter featured in two long-running shows that changed the general perception that films such as Kranti had created about him. In Junoon, he played Keshav Kelsi, a fiendish mob boss and was a regular feature in the lives of millions across India for nearly five years thanks to the show being on the national broadcaster, Doordarshan. Along with Junoon Alter’s character Charles Spencer, a British writer trying to learn Hindi on Zabaan Sambhalke, the Hindi version of Mind Your Language, too, showed a side of the actor that was usually eclipsed by the stereotypical foreigner that he would usually get to play.

In some ways, Alter’s role in Junoon was an extension of the mood that he created as Musa in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda (1989), which was one of the first mainstream roles where Alter’s real-life background never played a part. This was also the period where he played Lord Mountbatten in Ketan Mehta’s Sardar but it was the stage where Alter got the opportunity to sink into roles and portray characters that perhaps films, or even television, would not have given him.

Tom Alter as Maulana Azad. YouTube

Tom Alter as Maulana Azad. YouTube

The stage was where Alter played varied historical figures and perhaps would be the only Indian to portray Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Rabindranath Tagore, Mirza Ghalib, Manto, Sahir Ludhianvi, Aurangzeb and Bahadur Shah Zafar. His Ghalib was near perfect and so was his Maulana Azad, a role that he often said to be his favourite. He also played the same character in Shyam Benegal’s Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution, a ten-part television mini-series based on the making of the Indian Constitution.

Awarded the Padma Shri in 2008, the multi-faceted Tom Alter had also written books and regularly contributed pieces on sports, especially cricket, to many publications. In fact, Alter holds the unique distinction of being the first to interview Sachin Tendulkar in 1989, who up until was just an up-and-coming cricketing sensation.

For an actor who worked with auteurs like Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal, shared the screen with legends that included the iconic Peter O’Toole and played a bevy of characters that included lecherous angrez to Gandhi with equal gusto, Tom Alter had one of the best seats with a ringside view of great art in the making and unlike many he didn’t just sit there but participated with great élan.

Updated Date: Sep 30, 2017 16:05 PM