Tom Alter
Before he acted in films and plays, Tom Alter was a sports teacher and writer whose columns were popular. Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore in the film 'Aaradhna' (1969) hooked him to cinema and thus began his transformation. Since then Tom has acted in a number of films with noted filmmakers. In 1977, he along with Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani formed the theatre group Motley Productions and in 1979, they together staged Samuel Beckett's WAITING FOR GODOT at Prithvi Theatre. Many years have passed since; the three of them went their own ways, but Tom remained committed to theatre. He is best known today for the roles of the famous personalities that he has essayed in various plays- in Sayeed Alam's three plays on Mirza Ghalib for example. The three plays which are travelling from Delhi will be performed in Mumbai on November 15, 16 and 17. We take the opportunity to speak to the veteran actor about these plays, of how he takes on Ghalib's character, and of how he sees himself as an actor after all the years he has spent in the Hindi film industry and on stage.

 By Deepa Punjani

Tom AlterDeepa Punjani (DP): Pierrot's Troupe has been breathless about you in the figure of Mirza Ghalib. What has been your own experience playing the legendary poet?

Tom Alter (TA): The experience has been both a challenge and a source of deep, deep satisfaction. Thanks to Alam's guidance and his script, I am able, to some extent, do justice to the role.

DP: How did you go about developing your character? What are the aspects that you stress on to make your character lifelike?

TA: We have tried to make the character of Ghalib in the play as human and real as possible; and, remember, there are two other Ghalibs besides me -- and Harish Chhabra, who plays the main Ghalib, is simply brilliant. We have concentrated on the humour and wit of Ghalib, first of all; then on his personal sorrow, and how he deals with this sorrow, and his deep relationships with his friends and shagirds.

DP: Among the three shows, which is the best according to you?

TA: All three shows are unique. In one, we concentrate on Ghalib; in the second, it is on his wife and in the third, Alam has created a scenario of Ghalib in today's New Delhi, and it is simply hilarious and brilliant.

DP: After playing Ghalib for so long, are you an authority of sorts on the man?

TA: No, I am not an authority. I deeply love and respect the poet and character, Ghalib. My performance is my personal tribute to him.

DP: You are a veteran actor. But how do you prepare your entry? What's your state of mind before a show? Is there anything particular that you do or a regimen that you follow?

TA: When I make my entry, Ghalib is an old man; although only 66 or 67, his health is failing, and he has seen and experienced much. Life has both given and taken from him deeply and richly. So I must put myself into that mind and body set. Fortunately, I make my entry just after Ghalib is seen as a young boy with Mir. Watching and feeling this scene makes my entry more believable for me and the audience. I have learnt not to get too tense before a show, either out of nervousness or concentration. I try to enjoy and to believe - that is what I have learnt, and what Alam also teaches. I am always reading in Urdu and Hindi and English - poetry, novels, travel, history. I am reading Iqbal right now and on Jet airlines, in their monthly travel magazine, they have four pages of important people born in that month called, 'Vintage' -- a gem. I never miss it. I also do physical exercise as much as I can, and am always meeting and sharing with people.

MAULANA AZADDP: Tell us about your best and worst moment as an actor on stage.

TA: My best moments are too many to single out but in the play, MAULANA AZAD, again written and directed by Alam, I have disappeared in time and space for long periods of time while performing. I love those moments. My worst moments are when I am not prepared, or not inspired -- whether through my own laziness, or when, very seldom, a director loses his or her way.

DP: Before you embarked on an acting career, you taught and you wrote about sports. There's a YouTube video which shows your interview with a very young Sachin Tendulkar, and it was Tendulkar's first interview before his India team selection. What were those days like for you?

TA: Sports forms the basis of my being. It always has, and always will. To have been with Sachin when he was only 15, and to see him retiring now - is the most wonderful journey - -and do not forget - he still has two tests to play - I watched every minute of his second innings against Haryana - he did it - he did it - that is all I can say.

DP: For someone who has spent a good deal of time in Bollywood as well as in theatre, what do you think of our Hindi films and our theatre?

TA: I never use the word, 'Bollywood' but I am very proud and happy to have been a part of the Hindi film industry for the past almost forty years. And we have grown - we are tackling themes and issues in our commercial films today that we could not have dreamed about fifteen years ago. I just met Manoj Kumar after a long, long time - my elder brother in the industry -- and he still has the energy, vision and wisdom of the 'kranti' time. Recently, I was quoted as not being offered films. What I meant was that I have not been offered commercial films for quite a while. Other films I am doing very happily and I know that a commercial film will come to me, with a role which i will not be able to refuse.

DP: Is there any role that you are waiting to do? Anybody whom you dream to work with?

TA: There are two historical roles I am very keen to do -- Nehru and Jinnah, and then frontier Gandhi. I wait eagerly. At present, Gandhi, Maulana, Ghalib, Zafar, Tagore, Sahir, Saigal, Tafta, Neils Bohr, Einstein and Husain keep me busy and on creative edge. I dreamt of working with Peter O'Toole and Rajesh Khanna and worked with both. Working with Dilip Kumar, Raj Kapoor, and Dev Anand were other dreams and they have come true. I was privileged to work with directors V Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Manoj Kumar, and then Subhash Ghai -- the baton of direction in Hindi commercial cinema went through their hands from one to another. I worked with Naseer and Om and Pankaj Kapoor and with Gulzar. There is little left to wish for or dream about and now I have produced a film, 'Cheekha', of which I am very proud. I have just worked with Shyam Benegal as Maulana Azad in his serial on the making of the Indian Constitution, and finally, i have written and directed and acted in a serial in Urdu -- 'Ik fursat-e-gunaah' for DD Urdu, which is shot in my hometown of Landour, Mussoorie. It is based on the poetry of Faiz with Ghalib and TS Eliot and my dear friend and poet, Idrak Bhatty, as revered company. In that serial I have worked with four of my classmates from the FTII in Pune - Chandar Khanna, Uday Chandra, Geeta Khanna, and Benjamin Gilani. We are all students of one guru -- Shri Roshan Taneja. To have work with these people, with the blessings of Taneja-sahib - in my hometown - in Urdu - dealing with a subject very close to my heart - what more can I ask for? And Alam-sahib is also in the serial, and has done a wonderful job.

DP: WAITING FOR GODOT, which was Motley's first play, was actually produced by Naseeruddin Shah, Benjamin Gilani and you together. It's later that you split. But those must have been heady times too?

TA: WAITING FOR GODOT with Ben and Naseeer -- what can I say? It was heaven - created from our friendship and our sweat and our blood. Ben and Naseer, you are with me always.

Deepa Punjani is the Editor of this website.

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