In conversation with Tom Alter

by Chaand Chazelle

Tom Alter

Tom Alter is a fine, versatile and well known actor and a familiar presence in the Bombay film industry. Any film which requires a British character rooted in colonial times will very likely have Tom in the role. In the film,‘Sardar’ he played Mountbatten and has acted in over 400 films including  famous ones such as, ‘Janoon’ and ‘Shatranj ke Khilarhi’ and several others. He was awarded the ‘Padmashri’ by the Indian government in 2008. Tom has worked with Peter O’Toole and has played the famous poet Sahir Ludhianvi too.

I first met Tom on the set of Janoon. Later I met him in London. When I watched him on the stage playing Mirza Ghalib, I was intrigued and mystified by his bona fide Urdu accent because generally speaking, the British are notorious for their lack of interest in learning languages. I met up with him recently in Bombay. Although he had been filming the entire night as well as rehearsing a stage play, he invited me very graciously to his place. Despite being tired, he was courteous and helpful during the interview.

“How does a white British person excel in Urdu?” I asked.  He replied “I don’t ever think of my colour and it’s not a mystery. My grandparents came to India as missionaries from America a hundred years ago. They lived in Sialkot which now is in Pakistan. My father was born in Sialkot but I was born in Mussoorie in India. That’s where I went to school. Everyone around me including my parents spoke in Urdu. They even had a Bible in Urdu and they preached in Urdu.

Chaand with Tom Alter
Tom Alter with the interviewer

The acting bug bit him when he was just a child. He watched Rajesh Khanna in Aradhana and wanted to be a romantic lead.”As a child we used to visit Bombay very often but never stayed here. My real visit to Bombay was in 1972 when I was on my way to the Pune Film Institute. I studied Urdu there and continue doing so. Then after finishing my course I came to Bombay in 1974 and have been here ever since.”

His first job as a teacher was in the St. Thomas school in Jagadhari. But his first film was Ramanand Sagar’s ‘Charas’ in which he acted in 1976. Then two big films Janoon and Shatranj ke Khilarhi made him a household name. “I worked with Dev Saab in ‘Des Pardes’ and with Raj Kapoor in -‘Ram Teri Ganga Meli.’ Then I worked with Saeed Mirza and Ketan Mehta and several directors, the list is endless.”

A question I put to him was how was he able to work continuously whilst living in India, while Indian actors in Britain do not get such a chance. He was very forceful in emphasizing that-“As long as Indian actors in the UK think of themselves as Indians, there’s no chance. They have to think of themselves as English. I happen to be white but I’m Indian like any other Indian. My colour has never been a battle for me.” I pondered. ‘Whenever I auditioned for acting jobs here in London, I never presented myself as an Indian actor but just an actor to play any part. But nothing came my way! The Actors’ union ‘Equity’ debated a lot about so called ‘integrated casting’.  But it never quite materialized.’  Maybe Indian directors are generous and colour blind.”

He continued-“I’m not an American working in India, I’m an Indian working in India, that’s the whole point. You have to say ‘I’m an English woman working in England’. All the doors will open, you’ll see.” But I don’t share his optimism.

He added, “So many people make that mistake. I take it you were not born in England but I was born here, I’m an Indian, this is my home. So whatever work I get I get. For me it’s never been a challenge-White, Brown, Purple or Blue. My only concern is to get good roles. 44 years ago I committed myself to doing this, that’s what I want to do.”

I reminded him once again, ‘But you speak excellent Urdu.’ He responded by saying-“But you speak good English.”  But I knew despite my good English I would never get the parts that he gets in India. It pleases me and I am proud of India’s plurality. He is constantly working in films, several television series and in theatre.

Tom is very active in the theatre scene.  He teamed up with Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani. The first play he did was Samuel Beckett’s ‘Waiting for Godot’. He performed in Edinburgh in 1991 and in his words, “It was truly a wonderful experience.”  He says, 20-25 plays are active which constantly tour within India and internationally in Britain, USA and Middle East etc.

Tom is also a keen cricketer. He interviewed Sachin Tendulkar in 1988 when he was only 15.

He often takes part in celebrity cricket. Another feather in his cap is that for the past 2-3 years he’s been visiting a university in Bandra, Bombay where he performs his plays as well as conducting poetry sessions with students. I watched him interact with students with deep interest and enthusiasm. Once again his mastery of not only English poetry but of Urdu poetry impressed me. He recited T.S Elliot to Bob Dylan and has an amazing facility with Ghalib and other Urdu poets’ works. He tells me, “When I met Dilip ji, his only advice to me about good acting was to learn poetry.”

He has just finished a film playing the ‘Nawab’ of the title ‘Nawab Sahib’. I can’t wait to see this film. His work is financed by ticketing or by many other generous sources.

Chaand Chazelle