Remembering Tom Alter: On his 70th birth anniversary, here’s a slice from his vast repertoire

Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
Jun 22, 2020 06:25 PM IST

Tom Alter, the late actor, worked in films, theatre, and TV, and etched some iconic characters in our mind and hearts. From his first break to love for theatre and language, here’s remembering his life.

A forever charming persona, knowledge of impeccable Hindi, Urdu and English, and a master of the craft of acting — needless to say late film, TV and theatre actor Thomas Beach Alter aka Padma Shri Tom Alter, is a veteran who has been loved by one and all. He made way into people’s hearts with his innumerable roles including Lord Mountbatten in the film Sardar (1993), and the titular role of Mirza Ghalib in the stage play Ghalib in Delhi.

Tom Alter (1950-2017) is fondly remembered as the actor who was an ace performer across mediums.(Photo: Shakti Yadav)
Tom Alter (1950-2017) is fondly remembered as the actor who was an ace performer across mediums.(Photo: Shakti Yadav)

The actor, who was battling stage four skin cancer, would have turned 70 today (June 22, 2020). Here’s a slice of what he’s left behind for generations to archive...

A sports journalist in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he is always fondly remembered to hold a special place in Indian batsman Sachin Tendulkar’s life; whose first-ever TV interview was by Alter himself. Sachin had called him “a true sports lover” and said that he met “a good human being” through his first TV interview.

On the big screen, from giving life to Musa in filmmaker Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s crime drama Parinda (1989), to portraying Arnie Campbell in filmmaker Mahesh Bhatt’s blockbuster romance Aashiqui (1990), he did all.


‘Came to Mumbai to become Rajesh Khanna’

Born in Mussoorie, the Indian actor of American descent’s defining moment in his life came in 1970 when he cycled for more than 10 kilometers from Jagadhri to Yamunanagar through Haryana’s farms to watch Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore-starrer Aradhana (1969). Intrigued by the film industry and acting, he ended up pedalling along the same stretch five times that week to see the film again and again. Alter knew that he wanted to be like Khanna – an actor.

“Watching Rajesh Khanna in Aaradhna happened to be the turning point of my life, which is how I decided to enter films. I continue to be awed by his unparalleled screen presence and persona. I came to Bombay (Mumbai) to become Rajesh Khanna. I didn’t come to act on stage. Theatre isn’t secondary, but my passion lies in films,” said the actor born and brought up in Mussoorie.

Having graduated from Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, Alter got his first break in the Dev-Anand starrer Saheb Bahadur (1977), directed by Chetan Anand. In his first release, Ramanand Sagar’s Charas (1976), he played the then superstar Dharmendra’s CID boss, and later on he worked with luminaries such as V Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Manmohan Desai, Manoj Kumar and Satyajit Ray as well as a host of lesser-known directors. His last film was Sargoshiyan with actors Alok Nath and Farida Jalal, which released in May, 2017.

Multi-faceted and a theatre thespian

The void was not just in films, but in the theatre circuit as well, when he left for the heavenly abode. Alter was a regular artiste on the Delhi stage and worked in various plays, some of which included Maulana based on Maulana Azad, for which he has received critical acclaim far and wide. He even portrayed the characters of Ghalib and Dr Khanna, and one for adaptation of William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns. He also received praise for his role in the film Ocean of An Old Man, which has been screened at film festivals around the world. And had directed a one-shot episode for the short-lived series Yule Love Stories in the mid-1990s. The play Lal Qile Ka Aakhri Mushaira, saw Alter portray the role of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Playwright M Sayeed Alam who worked him several times called him a “fine actor, but more than that, “a father figure and guide” to him. Always moving with the time, Alter was seen on the OTT platform, in a web series shot in Goa titled Smoke and had also written three books, one non-fiction and two fiction.

Love for Urdu

Alter called Urdu his “pidri zubaan” or father tongue. “I love Urdu,” he said, adding, that “we need Urdu and Urdu doesn’t need us”. His love for the language dates back to childhood.. “My father was a padre and used to recite the Bible in Urdu. The language has no religion. I read poetry in Urdu, Hindi, English and Latin. If you love beautiful poetry, you don’t restrict yourself to one language,” he said.

Friendship with Ruskin Bond

Before moving to Mussoorie, Bond and Alter had spent their formative years in Dehradun. “Both of us felt so much at home in India that we returned to it after living abroad.Throughout our long association, I played the role of a well-meaning older friend. He was always on the move and visited Mussoorie twice or thrice a year. He was quite sentimental about old things and our cultural heritage.When he visited me, we discussed films, books and the sweeping changes taking place in Mussoorie. He would often ask me questions about our publishing industry,” Bond, had said in an interview to Scroll, earlier.

Author tweets @Nainaarora8

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    Naina Arora writes on City, Art and Culture of Gurugram, for the daily Entertainment & Lifestyle supplement, HT City

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