Tom Alter (1950-2017): The on-screen ‘firangi’ who remained perpetually Indian


Tom Alter was a fine, keen actor who brought all his multi-faceted interests to a table, and strong them into his performances.

THERE ARE some actors who do their pursuit and blur away, as shortly as a theatre is over. And afterwards there are some whose shade participation is so unaccompanied that they linger, on a periphery of a memories, since they’ve grown along with us, imprinting a same time as we have.

Tom Alter was a fine, keen actor who brought all his multi-faceted interests to a table, and strong them into his performances. Because of his American ancestry, and his “fair” skin, he became a go-to actor whenever Hindi cinema indispensable a “gora”, good or bad. His grandparents came to India over a hundred years ago, as missionaries, and he grew adult in tiny North Indian towns, imbibing a enlightenment and denunciation (Hindi and Urdu). His initial seductiveness was sports, generally cricket. He wrote beautifully on a game, and his passion for it remained stone solid all through: he was as mostly to be found on a field, as on set.

Because Hindi cinema of a ‘70s and ‘80s had no use for Americans, a default “firangi” was customarily British and bumptious. So Tom got to play loads of Englishmen vocalization variants of “koi hai Hindoostani”, from an Urdu-spouting sophisticate in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi to a really clichéd India-hating officer in Manoj Kumar’s Kranti, and several shades in between.

When Bollywood detected that he had improved Hindi than many of a actors he worked with, and that his “zubaan” in Urdu was impeccable, he did get a possibility to do other kinds of roles. He went full mainstream in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda: as a black-robed Musa, he was one of a several noted gangsters of a film, not only a batch whitey.

It’s not that he didn’t take advantage of looking like one when a time was right. A renouned TV sequence in a midst ‘90s, Zabaan Sambhal Ke (the “desi” chronicle of Mind Your Language) had him play an farfetched “angrez” in a coupler and tie: Tom went shrill and broad, and enjoyed himself hugely, as did a whole cast, headlined by teacher-in-chief Pankaj Kapur. It was this array that done him a domicile name in an India that was only training how many fun state-run TV, aka Doordarshan, could be.

He wasn’t only manifest in film and TV. The theatre was his too. Theatre gave him a kind of space that films did not (he shaped a Motley organisation with Benjamin Gilani and Naseerudin Shah, his friends during FTII, where he had learnt behaving underneath Roshan Taneja), and he played a accumulation of roles, many particularly Maulana Azad. But cinema was where his heart lay, a heart he had mislaid in his girl to both Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore when he initial watched Aradhana, that led to him apropos an actor.

I consternation if he was commencement today, would he have stayed so many on a margins? Would a changing Bollywood have given him some-more to play with? We will never know. What we do know that Tom was a full-time actor: he lived an actor’s life, operative all a while he was struggling with cancer: he had skeleton to act and direct, and to keep personification a game.

What he stood for was a suggestion of India, plural, unapproachable and diverse. Where a chairman of American skirmish could be, profoundly and forever, Indian, either he was Dick, Harry, or Tom.

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