Remembering the incredible Tom Alter

Romance icon Rajesh Khanna’s remarkable charisma in Aradhana sparked the acting bug in many.

Somewhere in the small town of Jagadhri, Haryana, a young man with blue eyes and blonde hair was so strongly enamoured, he decided this was what he wanted to do for the rest of his life.  

Born into a family of missionaries who migrated from America to India in the early 1900s, Tom Alter spent most of his childhood in the picturesque hill station of Mussoorie before taking up teaching and, ultimately, heading off to Pune’s Film and Television Institute of India to pursue acting as a profession. 

It was at FTII that Alter made friends with the likes of Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani and set up their theatre group, Motley. 

But it was only after he arrived in Bollywood that Alter realised he wasn’t perceived like everyone else because of the colour of his skin and his chances of becoming another Rajesh Khanna were rather slim. 

Equipped with fluent Hindi and Urdu speaking skills, impeccable manners and a sophisticated depth, Alter was far from disheartened. Instead, he worked hard to create an identity that proved his prowess beyond the stereotypical ‘angrez’ in a career spanning extensive work in film, television and theatre.   

From Mirza Ghalib to Lord Mountbatten, he played them all. 

Alter’s eloquence extended to writing books and sports columns — the internet is bursting with images of his interview with a teenage Sachin Tendulkar, the cricket legend’s first ever.    

At the age of 67, the Padmashri recipient has lost the battle to skin cancer but his extraordinary spirit and passionate demeanour will live on in public memory.

Here’s remembering some of his most famous performances on the silver and small screen. 

Charas (1976)
Playing an Interpol officer and Dharmendra’s boss in Ramanand Sagar’s slick entertainer Charas, shot in countries like Italy and Malta, marks the actor’s first brush with fame.

It is a minor role but Alter shows promise. 

Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977)
Alter’s poetry appreciating and reciting Captain Weston flawlessly translates thoughts and opinions in his propah English and chaste Hindi for the benefit of his British colleagues and the Nawab’s spokespersons, but there’s a lot to read in his unsentimental, inscrutable face.

Junoon (1978)
In Shyam Benegal’s compelling adaptation of Ruskin Bond’s A Flight Of Pigeons, set amidst the mutiny of 1857, Alter pitches in as its leading lady Jennifer Kendal’s significant other, whose brutal, bloody end triggers the events of the rest of the story.   

Kranti (1981)
Unlike his more discerning ‘phirang’ characters from the British Raj, Tom Alter’s lively depiction of a debauched, deplorable ‘gora’ in Manoj Kumar’s unabashedly jingoistic Kranti underlines Mr Bharat’s kitschy sensibilities. 

Gandhi (1982)
After sharing the screen with Richard Attenborough in Shatranj Ke Khilari, Alter worked under his direction for a minor role of a British physician treating Kasturba Gandhi in the Oscar-winning biopic.

He may not have much screen time but the actor is silently effective in his empathy.

Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985)
In Raj Kapoor’s sensational melodrama, Alter plays the face of brotherly love, Bollywood style.

As Mandakini’s protective bada bhai, he not only refuses to marry but also lays down his life for his sister.

Parinda (1989)
Alter’s conceit and compromise announce their deadly game as soon as his gangster Musa sets foot into the frame, wearing a black lungi-kurta in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s brilliant crime drama.

Aashiqui (1990)
Nasty, nightmarish hostel wardens are made of stuff like Tom Alter’s beastly bullying avatar in Mahesh Bhatt’s musical success — a huge shift from his sensible, soft-spoken characters.  

Sardar (1993)
Alter lends his natural charisma and affability to essay Lord Mountbatten in Ketan Mehta’s masterful portrait of Sardar Vallabhai Patel’s persona and politics.

Zabaan Sambhal Ke (1993)
Alter mocks at the Bob Cristo way of speaking Hindi in his humourous attempt to learn the language around an equally madcap bunch in Doordarshan’s hilarious version of British sitcom, Mind Your Language.

Junoon (1994)
Easily among Doordarshan’s most popular serials, Junoon’s emotionally-charged conflicts and glamorous appeal enthralled a wide set of viewers.

As did Tom Alter’s simmering delivery of the vile mobster, Don Keshav Kalsi.

Captain Vyom (1998)
Ketan Mehta’s amusing, intergalactic adventure on the lines of Star Trek relies on Tom Alter’s rich, commanding presence to play its premier Vishwapramukh, assigning daredevil missions to its titular hero.

Shaktimaan (1998)
Shaktimaan’s superhero antics may be designed for tots but ably showcase Tom Alter’s impressive range as a performer.

As the serene, scholarly leader of a spiritual cult Suryanshis, Alter’s fluent Sanskrit-laced Hindi speaking Mahaguru is a treat to watch.

Samvidhaan (2014)
Shyam Benegal details the making of India’s Constitution in his ambitious TV series, featuring the magnificent Alter as Indian leader Maulana Abul Kalam Azad.

After all those years of playing British characters in scripts relating to India’s Independence, it’s heartening to witness Alter’s talent being acknowledged outside typecasting. 

This article was first published on rediff.com.

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