Remembering Tom Alter
Theatre's blue-eyed boy

Priya Pathiyan

Hindustani by heart and diction, he would have turned 70 today.

Tom Alter had just played God for the 350th time in WHEN GOD SAID CHEERS. The magnificent voice and easy manner gave no hint that he was burning up with a high fever. He had performed for nearly an hour in this state and he still mustered the strength to interact with the audience.

My husband recounted a dialogue from his role in Satyajit Ray's film SHATRANJ KE KHILARI, perhaps not with complete accuracy. It did not matter. His blue eyes flashed instantly with warmth and indulgence. 'Arre yaar. Tumhe poora yaad hai,' he twinkled. To say that he was more Indian than many of us is stating the obvious. The quality of his Urdu and Hindustani diction was truly immaculate. His humility and professionalism even more so.

Cyrus Dastur, founder of Shamiana (Asia's largest short film company) and director and co-actor of WHEN GOD SAID CHEERS, talks about how much he learned from Alter over the 15 years he worked with him on this and other theatrical productions, 'Of course it was a dream to work with him but Tom-sahib was more like a father figure to me. Not only the nuances of acting, he also taught me integrity, discipline, punctuality and professionalism. Perhaps it was generational; you rarely see that kind of commitment in actors today.' Dastur recounts one of the many incidents that exemplify Alter's work ethic. 'There were some scheduling mix-ups and he was in Singapore finishing a show, while one in Lonavala was slated for just after. This was not a high-paying performance, but he bought a ticket with his own money to come back in time so that he wouldn't disappoint the organisers or his audience. That's the kind of man he was.'

This Indian actor of American descent, who studied at the Film and Television Institute of India, was one of the founding members of Motley Productions along with Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani. Alter also acted in innumerable films in many languages and genres, a body of work that saw him awarded the Padma Shri in 2008. He also worked as a sports journalist (he did the first video interview with a young and nervous Sachin Tendulkar) and authored quite a few books.

The man who grew up in Uttaranchal still had very strong ties to it even though he lived in Mumbai Central. 'Mussoorie – and especially Landour, which is my part of Mussoorie, is the very centre of my existence,' he wrote in an e-mail to me a few days after we had met for the first time. It was the start of a correspondence, one that often moved me and always inspired me. For someone who didn't use a mobile phone, his emails were as prompt as they were profound. 'I have just awoken – a long night of writing and thoughts and dreams,' he wrote late one morning.

When I sent him pictures from my holiday in Mussoorie, he was thrilled. 'Lal Tibba is only a half-hour walk from our house. Did you go up the road to the graveyard beyond? That is our family graveyard. It's beautiful. My mother, my father, and two of my uncles are buried there. When I visit the graves, I talk to them – and I can feel a response. Someday I will show you the entire TV serial I shot there. But even memories are very, very beautiful and very, very powerful,' he wrote. Poetry was never far from his thoughts. A few months later he emailed, 'Off to Lucknow in the evening – time flows, and yet always remains so still, so gentle, so eager.' His words had a certain stream-of-consciousness quality that made you feel he was completely with you and yet also in another realm.

Perhaps not so different from when he was connecting with his audience under the stage lights. Asked to pick the one thing that set Alter apart from other theatre personalities, Dastur is quick to answer – 'a strong stage presence'. It wasn't his being white that got him the attention in theatre, but his ability to slip into the skin of a character and make it his own. Throughout his stage career, he essayed all kinds of roles, playing many interesting characters to perfection. From Maulana Azad to Mahatma Gandhi, from Mirza Ghalib to Saadat Hasan Manto to Sahir Ludhianvi, from Rabindranath Tagore to Bahadur Shah Zafar and even Albert Einstein, he gave us such a powerful version of each that it's hard to distinguish his interpretation that remains in our mind's eye from the real deal.

As an actor who went so deep into his craft, he lamented the lack of good theatre critics. 'Most of them will ask me a few questions before the play and will step out for coffee during it! You can judge by their flaky questions that they have no idea about it,' he intoned, rather ruefully. In fact, Alter was so passionate about theatre that in Spring 2017 – a year after he had had his thumb amputated because of the cancer that would finally take him from us a few months later – conceptualised and executed a mega marathon of productions that would have daunted even a much younger, fitter man. Twice every day for 17 days, JASHN-E-MAAZI (The Play of History) would feature him and other actors performing a dazzling array of prose and poetry, music and dance, in a celebration of India's rich history and culture in Hindi, Urdu and English at Mumbai's YB Chavan Auditorium. It was almost as though he had had a premonition of what lay ahead and, through these performances, he gave us a true sense of who he was and what he could do in a manner that transcends mortality.

*Priya Pathiyan is an independent lifestyle journalist

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