Tom Alter unplugged

Hindustan Times | By, New Delhi
Apr 03, 2010 05:37 PM IST

He gave up teaching in favour of films and theatre, but Indian cinema’s ‘blue-eyed sahib’ Tom Alter is also an author and a passionate writer on cricket. Veenu Singh tells us more.

How does a schoolteacher of American descent end up in Bollywood? In Tom Alter’s case, the story and performances of Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana is the answer. Before Aradhana, Alter, the son of American missionaries, had been happy teaching children at a mission school in the small town of Jagadhri in Haryana. After the movie, he headed to the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. What followed was a unique career path for the blue-eyed sahib (as Alter came to be known), embracing everything from Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi to roles in Bheja Fry, Mangal Pandey and Veer-Zaara, all thanks to Alter’s perfect Hindi.

Simultaneously, Alter pursued his other love – theatre. “It gives me a chance to talk about issues close to my heart,” he says. Which is why he is in Delhi just now with actors like Lushin Dubey and Immad Shah, rehearsing what’s being called India’s first indigenous concert theatre.

Blazing new ground

Titled Bring Down the Walls, the play is an exploration of freedom in 21st century India, through the journey of five characters in search of their individuality. Each character represents an issue that commonly disturbs and conflicts with the existing social order. Watching and tracing their development are two characters (Lushin and Alter) who represent the rebellion of the previous generation and thus give us a periodical window into either side of the establishment. The whole story is brought to life by a background score inspired by Pink Floyd’s The Wall.

The issues the play throws up are close to Alter’s heart – which is exactly why he chooses to act in the plays that he acts in. “The theme or the character has to attract me. And I am also passionate about how the arts reflect a certain period of time,” he says, talking to Brunch while also discussing the production with other members of the cast. But Alter says he hasn’t given up on films entirely. In fact, he rather likes the kind of movies younger filmmakers are coming up with these days, and proudly proclaims that he’d predicted this new wave of Indian cinema nearly 15 years ago.

“I still remember commenting about the fact that with the economy opening up, things will change drastically in the film industry too,” says Alter. “Look at Dev D – it’s a ‘kiss on the cheek’ on the original Devdas. So is the Devdas remake with Shah Rukh Khan. Look at Raju Hirani who had the amazing idea to use Gandhi as a spirit in Lage Raho Munnabhai. Look at films like Taare Zameen Par and My Name Is Khan. All these people are bringing down the walls. And that’s what Kapil Sibal is also doing in terms of education. Here, I must say that Indian education is much better than any kind of education in the West. A well-educated Indian is way ahead of his global counterparts.”

Personally speaking

Alter has also written three books and is working on two more. “One is based on the subject of theatre, the other has memories as its background,” explains Alter. His favourite Indian author is Stephen Alter. “I say that at the cost of sounding biased,” he says. “But being related to him has nothing to do with it – it is purely due to his interesting work. I really liked his book on the making of Omkara. I also liked Saeed Mirza’s book on his mother (Ammi). And I enjoyed the book The Zoya Factor (by Anuja Chauhan) about cricket.”

The Zoya Factor is a romance set partly in the world of cricket, and since cricket is Alter’s passion, it makes sense that he enjoyed the book. Alter himself has been a sports journalist on and off, and so is his son James Alter. However Alter is less than complimentary about the IPL. “I don’t watch it at all!” he says. “I find it obscene. It is based on two main motives – greed and glamour – and it will eventually perish.”

He is also quite vocal about his affection for Delhi. “When I lived in Mussoorie, we used to come to Delhi quite often. Ashok Hotel was one of my favourite places to stay and to go for a swim, and we loved eating out at Khyber, Kwality and Chandni Chowk,” he recalls.

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