Rajesh Khanna’s performance in “Aradhana” so enthused this American whose family was long settled in India that he was determined to enter Bollywood. And Tom Alter did succeed, moving from playing the stereotypical Briton/foreigner to more nuanced roles in a string of mainstream films and serials, and culminating as the only Indian actor to have acted as both Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and Lord Mountbatten.
An avid cricket fan, Alter did the first-ever TV interview of Sachin Tendulkar, played regularly (in a team called ‘MCC’ — Match Cut Club — along with Naseeruddin Shah, Vishal Bhardwaj and Aamir Khan), wrote much about the game, including in top newspapers and magazines, coached students in his short teaching career, and also has the distinction of being the only Bollywood actor who has given commentary in a one-day match.
Born on this day in 1950 in a family of missionaries settled in India since roughly the time when Mahatma Gandhi came back for good from overseas, Thomas Beach ‘Tom’ Alter distinguished himself in a four-decade entertainment career, where he assured himself a firm place on the Indian cultural expanse, given the range of roles he essayed.
With his firm command, and perfect diction, in Hindi and Urdu — with only a slight trace of an endearing accent, Alter was an obvious fixture as a British officer in any Bollywood film or TV serial depicting the Raj.
Apart from two key figures spanning a momentous near-century of the country’s history, the blue-eyed ‘Gora Sahab’ also appeared as Lord Clive, Lord Wellesley, Brigadier Reginald Dyer, the butcher of Jallianwala Bagh, but also as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad (twice), Mirza Ghalib, Sahir Ludhianvi, and for good measure, as the King of Paristan, and the “Mahaguru”.
Then, Alter did not confine himself to the big and small screen — and not only in Bollywood, but in Assamese, Gujarati, Kannada, Kumaoni, Marathi, and Malayalam cinema too — and the stage.
After his Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, training, he landed a small role in a Dev Anand film. His real debut, however, happened with Ramanand Sagar’s “Charas” (1976), where he is Dharmendra’s customs department boss, and then he gained greater prominence with Satyajit Ray’s “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” (1977).
As Capt Weston, a blond-haired, luxuriantly-moustachioed and sideburn-sporting British officer in Wajid Ali Shah’s Lucknow, he appears quite early in the film, briefing the new Resident, General James Outram (Richard Attenborough), about the ruler and appearing quite impressed with his literary talents.
At his superior’s urging, he also recites one of the Nawab’s ‘shers’: “Sadma na pahunche koi mere jism-ezar par, ahista dalna phool mere mazar par/Har chand khaak mein tha magar ta falak gaya/Dhoka hai asmaan ka mere ghubar par.”
He is also the tactful translator when Outram interacts with the Nawab’s Prime Minister, Ali Naqi Khan Madar-ud-Daula (Victor Bannerjee), and then the Queen Mother (yesteryear’s actress Veena), where he tempers his superior’s intemperate words into chaste, diplomatic Urdu: e.g. “Aisa karna danishmandi nahi hogi”.
While this accounted for some of his memorable roles — spanning characters both sympathetic and understanding (as Weston) or the bit role of a doctor in Attenborough’s “Gandhi” (1982) — to those stereotypically tyrannical and racist (in “Kranti”), Alter was not content with this niche only.
He also went on to appear as the heroine’s elder brother in Raj Kapoor’s “Ram Teri Ganga Maili” (1986); a Pathan underworld don in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s cult classic “Parinda” (1989) — the only major character apart from Jackie Shroff to survive; the obnoxiously strict Anglo-Indian in charge of a girl’s hostel in “Aashiqui” (1990), and so on.
And then, in a wider exposure, he went on to play Saul, the biblical King of Israel, in “One Night With the King” (2006) opposite Peter O’Toole as Prophet Samuel, though their scenes form only the prologue of the Luke Goss-starrer.
Alter also was a major presence on TV, appearing in various roles in the British-era episodes of Shyam Benegal’s “Bharat Ek Khoj”, as Shaktiman’s mentor Mahaguru in the popular superhero TV series, the ‘Vishwapramukh’ (world president) in science fiction series “Captain Vyom”, and the King of Paristan in “Hatim”.
His stage life, initiated with FTII contemporaries Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani, started with plays such as “Waiting for Godot”, bur Alter soon diversified here too, staging an adaptation of Malayalam writer Vaikom Mohammad Bashir to portraying icons of Urdu literature such as Mirza Ghalib and Sahir Ludhianvi in original works.
Tom Alter was going on for more things, including an adaptation of one of his own novels, when he succumbed to blood cancer in 2017. His extensive career record was as much a testimony to India’s inclusive acceptance as much as to his undeniable talent.
–By Vikas Datta