Uniquely Indian

veteran actor

Uniquely Indian

He played a doctor in at least six of almost 200 films that make up his filmography, starting with his first American-Indian film Gandhi. But on September 29, real-life doctors had to accept defeat when American-Indian actor and Padma Shri recipient Tom Alter succumbed to cancer.

But then, Tom would have been the first to contest the ‘American-Indian’ tag. As he thundered in our telephonic conversation many years ago, “I am 100 % Indian!” And the government of India deservingly awarded him the Padma Shri in 2008 for his contribution to cinema and the creative arts.

Tom Alter, the son of American Presbyterian missionaries who first came to India in 1916, was born on June 22, 1950, in Mussoorie, and studied in Woodstock School. His grandparents had migrated to India from Ohio and settled in Lahore.

After Partition, his parents moved to India and settled in Rajpur. His elder sister, Martha Chen, has a PhD in South Asian Studies from the University of Pennsylvania and teaches at Harvard University. His brother John is a poet and a teacher.

At 18, Tom left for the US and studied at Yale for a year. However, he did not enjoy that and returned, taking up work as a teacher at St. Thomas School, Jagadhri, in Haryana. He coached his students in cricket too. At Jagadhri, he began to watch Hindi films.

When he watched Aradhana, he fell in love with Hindi movies, deciding that he was going to act in them for the rest of his life. His last prominent Hindi film was the 2015 Bangistan. Tom died with his shoes on, proof of which lies in the fact that his last signed film was Baaghi 2, which has just taken off.

First break

Chosen among about a thousand applicants in 1972 for an acting course at the Film & Television Institute of India, he graduated and got his first break with Chetan Anand’s Sahib Bahadur. But the film was delayed and his first release was the small-budget Mrig Trishna in 1975. His major break came in 1976 in the Ramanand Sagar film Charas as an Interpol officer.

Thanks to beginner’s luck, Tom’s next three films consolidated his standing as an actor — Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari, Nasir Husain’s Hum Kisise Kum Naheen and Manmohan Desai’s Parvarish. Thanks to his features, the young man continued to be branded for quite a while exclusively as a foreigner or Anglo-Indian on screen, though his Hindi and Urdu were fluent and accent-free. He even dubbed for ‘villain’ Jeevan’s twin brother in the blockbuster Amar Akbar Anthony!

Des Pardes, Shyam Benegal’s Junoon (1979), Kranti, Vidhaata, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Parinda, Tridev, Aashiqui and Bheja Fry were among his prominent Hindi films. In Kannada, he was a part of Kanneshwar Rama.

V Shantaram, Raj Kapoor, Manoj Kumar, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Yash Chopra and Subhash Ghai — Tom’s list constituted the who’s who of the best Hindi film-makers. Naturally a must for any Hindi film or television serial that had British characters of all hues, he was a part of, besides Gandhi, eminent films like Veer Savarkar and Sardar.

Open to everything

A stalwart in every sense, he overcame his disappointment at not being able to become a leading man in Hindi cinema and worked in a variety of films. Besides regional — Bengali, Assamese, Telegu, Tamil and Kumaoni — films, he worked in international films like One Night With The King with Peter O’Toole, and serials there as well, and also on Indian television. At two extremes were his most popular serials — Junoon, in a negative role, and Zabaan Sambhal Ke, in a comic role. Tom also hosted the health-based talk show Mere Ghar Aana Zindagi. He has also done a lot of short films and web shorts.

Theatre was another area in which Tom put his stamp. One of the founders of FTII colleagues Naseeruddin Shah’s and Benjamin Gilani’s theatre group Motley, Tom’s professional highs in this field included a recent theatrical reproduction of William Dalrymple’s City Of Djinns, and the solo play Maulana based on Maulana Azad — he first played the Maulana in Shyam Benegal’s series, Samvidhaan.

Tom also tried out direction — he directed a one-shot episode for the series Yule Love Stories in the 1990s. As an alternative passion, he was a sports journalist from the 1980s for a while, and he conducted the first-ever interview of Sachin Tendulkar, the images of which can be seen freely on the web. He has also written three books, one of them being non-fiction.

Truly, Tom ‘Alter’ed the way we looked at white-skinned actors.

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