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Tom Alter: An Actor And A Gentleman

Tuesday, October 03, 2017
By Deepa Gahlot

Tom Alter went too soon, a wonderful actor and writer and an even better human being; cheerful, unpretentious and generous. The only thing that annoyed him was constantly being taken for an American when, he was a pakka Hindustani with an Indian passport.

Reproducing here, excerpts of an interview done with him a few years back, as he spent a couple of hours in Mumbai before flying off again to perform on stage in another city. He travelled with a briefcase bulging with scripts, some of them in Urdu and reread them whenever there was time. With his prodigious memory, he memorised a dozen plays, quoted cricket statistics as easily as he could recite Ghalib, Mir, TS Eliott or Dylan Thomas, even though he wore his erudition lightly. When we got in touch with him, this is what he had to say:

That's some jet-setting life you lead. How many plays are you doing anyway?
We sat down to count, Cyrus Dastur (co-actor in When God Said Cheers) and I, and we stopped at 16. Baring one or two, all original plays, and most of them are not a part of the regular theatre circuit, so we are not tied down to any of the problems that theatre faces. I have performed in cafés, schools, people's homes.

How is it that you are doing more plays than films and TV?
Because in theatre you can create what you want. These days instead of formula films, there's formula TV. They have reduced actors to robots. They just don't allow any acting. I was doing a scene for one of these new serials once, and I paused, because the character had to think. The director said, "Why are you fumbling?" People still remember the Doordarshan serials of the early nineties, 'Zabaan Sambhalke', 'Gul Gulshan Gulfam', 'Junoon', 'Jugalbandi', 'BharatEk Khoj' and those serials ran for 13 episodes and 39 at the most. If a serial got an extension, people would say, they must have paid a bribe. 'Junoon' was the only one that ran for a long time. They had a party for 50 episodes, then 100 and 150, after that they stopped celebrating.

Look at the depth of the text in the plays I am doing. 'Maulana', 'When God Said Cheers', a play on MF Husain and KL Saigal, 'City of Djinns' an actor anywhere in the world would die to do just one of them. People see 'When God Said Cheers' and tell me that they understand what God really is. So my work is touching people. When I did 'Maulana' in Delhi, a young woman came up to me and said listening to the play is like feeling silk against the skin. Quality is eternal and to achieve quality is too much hard work, people are not willing to do it. I hope I am not being just a romantic old man, but I think there's a generation that's realized that all this is rubbishand they are looking for good things, not just in films, TV, theatre, but in life. Look at the response I get. For 'Inteha', the production I did on Ghalib's poetry, people came up and said it made then understand Ghalib. Now I want to do a similar show on Mir.

You caused a traffic jam in Bandra when you performed at the Carter Road promenade. What do you have to say about that?
You see, people want to see good work. Gulzar and I did a reading of his book in Ahmedabad. People climbed up on trees to listen. Instead of the schedule of 45 minutes, it went on for two and a half hours. We were not allowed to perform 'Maulana' in Gujarat, because it would be a threat to the communal harmony. Then my friend Anand Sagar (Ramanand Sagar's son) came to see it and said, "They don't want you to do it, because it is good." 'City of Djinns', we did it outdoors in Delhi and it was phenomenal.

Why did you go to the FTII then, instead of the National School of Drama?
Because I was a film buff.  wanted to be Rajesh Khanna, I still do.

And after all your years in the industry, pieces about you still express surprise that you speak such good Hindi..
(Irritated gesture) I do get upset. Some people tell me, we didn't know Maulana was so fair. I reply, "He was most of the time." They don't get it.

You don't write too much in the papers any more… are you working on a new novel?
I was a journalist for 16 years, and it was annoying to see what copy editors would do to your pieces. (Talks of some instances of terrible editing). In my books, there were grammatical and factual errors and I spent months on research. That's one of the reasons I stopped writing. But I have written some scripts and I do want to direct a film. I also want to do a play on the last six months of Gandhi's life. There's also a  play on Ghalib's life by Dr Alam, who wrote Maulana and KL Saigal.

It is well known that you don't carry a cell phone, why is that?
No reason, though I have nothing against talking to people on their cell phones.

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