The only sign that Tom Alter was ill was that Mahatma Gandhi had a thumb missing in the play, Mohan Se Mahatma, in July. “I had to amputate it. It was me, not Gandhi, who held the pen in two fingers to write My Experiments with Truth,” said the actor, the morning after he played MK Gandhi and Maulana Azad in two back-to-back shows at Delhi’s LTG auditorium.
Bollywood had typecast him as a firang but the stage stretched him better. He was God in Cyrus Dastur’s When God Said Cheers, Lucky in Motley’s adaptation of Waiting for Godot, and Bahadur Shah Zafar, as an emperor and as an exile in Sons of Babur and Lal Quile Ka Aakhiri Mushaira, respectively, both by Delhi-based Pierrot’s Troupe.
At the India International Centre, during one of his last interviews, with The Indian Express, Alter was less concerned with his untidy bed and more particular about his breakfast order. As he dug in, he also tore into major parties and partisan politics. “I was born in 1950, two years after Gandhi died. When we were growing up, he was all over the place. We saw him in all newspapers and news clips. I have a certain image of Gandhi in my mind,” he said, adding that he had played Gandhi in Yadi, based on the premise that the Father of the Nation was still alive. Alter’s ideas on politics looped in films and sports (“Of course, Gandhi made mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes, Virat Kohli makes mistakes”) and attempts to rewrite history (“A history that has never been written but actually happened, how can you rewrite that?”).
A veteran of 300 films and almost a thousand appearances on stage, Alter was dogged by compliments for his Urdu. The actor was of American-European descent, born in Mussoorie, to parents who were missionaries and had learnt Urdu. “He used to say, ‘If Urdu is not my mother tongue, it is my father tongue’. His father used to recite the Bible in Urdu. The Bible says, ‘Hum sab ek khuda ke bande hai’. He used to read that as ‘Hum sab ek khuda ke bandar hai’. He used to say, ‘This is more true’. God makes us dance as he wants,” says Dr M Sayeed Alam of Delhi-based Pierrot’s Troupe, who directed Alter in nine plays. For Intehaa, a series of readings of Mirza Ghalib’s poetry by Alter and Juhi Babbar, directed by Dastur, the veteran actor not only chose the poems but also translated these into English so that everybody could understand.
Alter gave a critically-acclaimed and nuanced portrayal as Maulana Azad, directed by Alam, which is the standard against which other plays on the freedom fighter are judged. He was Ghalib in an eponymous play, the narrator in KL Saigal, a poet of Persian, Munshi Har Gopal ‘Taftah’ in Ghalib Ke Khat, and the late psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion in The Becoming Room. “We performed When God Said Cheers across the length and breadth of the country in more than 400 shows and, everywhere, people came up to us to say they related to the play,” says Dastur. When God Said Cheers is about the Almighty coming to earth for a chat with Man, played by Dastur, over pints at a pub. “After the show, people used to come and touch his feet thinking he was god,” says Dastur.
In Delhi, members of the audience were convinced Alter had a physical resemblance to Maulana Azad/Bahadur Shah Zafar/Ghalib/Mahatma Gandhi. “I don’t like to spend a lot of time talking about the script. I prefer to read it, understand it and perform,” said Alter to The Indian Express.
“Something I learnt from him was that he never used to act. He used to feel the character. All those rules of characterisation that theatre pundits used to say seemed bekaar while watching Tom saab act. He was the Virendra Sehwag of Indian theatre,”