Maulana to KL Saighal: Tom Alter’s obsession with history

  • Poorva Joshi, Mumbai
  • Updated: Feb 05, 2016 15:12 IST
Tom Alter in a scene from Lal Qile Ka Aakhri Mushaera

Good evening, how may I help you,” says the baritone on the other end, on a landline number. It’s 10pm and we are on call with veteran actor, Tom Alter. Peculiarly reclusive, he doesn’t own a mobile phone; “I don’t need it,” he says. Despite a long travel (he’d just returned from Hyderabad he told us) behind him, Alter’s deep and commanding voice doesn’t show signs of fatigue.

With nearly five decades in films and theatre behind him, what keeps the 65-year-old actor going, we wonder. “I love telling stories and living different characters. Theatre and cinema today have become such magnanimous mediums for stories. I want to be a part of it,” he says.

And so, the veteran actor is now set to bring to life the Urdu poetry of Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and the musical legacy of singer KL Saigal, for the first time in the city. Additionally, Alter will recreate the magic of his classic play — Maulana (2009), based on the life of freedom fighter Abdul Kalam Azad. “I enjoy playing Azad on stage. I take up every opportunity that allows me to get under his skin,” he says.

Only halfway there

Born in the hill town of Mussoorie, Alter’s career graph resembles a quintessential Bollywood film: a young man from a small town falls in love with films after a chance meeting with his idols. As the sports teacher at St Thomas School in Haryana, Alter watched the Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore starrer, Aardhana (1969) and realised his calling. “Rajesh Khanna and Peter O’Toole (British-Irish stage actor) have been my greatest influences,” he says.

Alter at his residence in Mumbai Central (HT File Photo)

And thus started his career in films with Ramanand Sagar’s Charas in 1976. Soon, Alter went on to star in classics such as Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977) and Dev Anand’s Des Pardes in 1978. “It all worked out like fate, really. I came to Bombay to be a film actor. All these years later, I am still a film actor,” he says.

However, despite identifying as a film actor, Alter has to his name a series of acclaimed theatre and television productions and admits that his experience in theatre has been “nothing short of a joyful, albeit roller-coaster ride”. His journey in theatre began with Motley’s Waiting for Godot, in 1979. Forty years later, Alter has no intention of slowing down. “I will continue to do theatre for the sheer love of acting,” he says.

Past is present

In the early 2000s, Alter started working with Dr M Sayeed Alam, a writer and director known for his penchant for humorous historical plays. Their collaboration produced plays such as Yadi (2012), on the life of Mahatma Gandhi and Ghalib (2013), which focuses on the life and times of the Urdu poet Ghalib. “I have fond memories of that character. Every performance was a lesson in his unparalleled command over the language,” says Alter, who personally takes a keen interest in discovering Urdu literature.

But why the bias toward historical characters, we ask. “They allow me to re-discover history time and again”, he states promptly. Fittingly, Alter will be seen as the poet-king Bahadur Shah Zafar, in Lal Qile Ka Aakhri Mushaera. “I am not playing the king in this one. I am a poet, an artist. That duality to the man is what I found the most interesting,” he says. Similarly, in KL Saigal, he will portray Buzurgwaar, the narrator of the life story of the celebrated music director and singer. “I discovered a new world of theatre, music and cinema of a bygone era through this play,” says Alter. Saigal’s part will be played by actor Yashraj Malik.

Encouraged by the existing theatre and cinema culture in Mumbai, Alter hopes to stage Witnessing Wonders, a play based on the life of Ali Peter John, a journalist-turned-film-writer. “Ali was a friend and I promised to play him on stage one day. Hopefully, I will fulfil that promise this year,” he says.

Time travel

The Nayab festival will be staged on the following days, 7pm onward.

February 5: Maulana Azad

February 6: KL Saigal

February: Lal Qile Ka Aakhri Mushaera

Where: Rangsharda Auditorium, KC Marg, Bandra (W)

Tickets: Rs 300 onward on bookmyshow/plays

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