THERE ARE some actors who do their job and fade away, as soon as the scene is over. And then there are some whose screen presence is so singular that they linger, on the periphery of our memories, because they’ve grown along with us, marking the same time as we have.
Tom Alter was a fine, perceptive actor who brought all his multi-faceted interests to the table, and distilled them into his performances. Because of his American ancestry, and his “fair” skin, he became the go-to actor whenever Hindi cinema needed a “gora”, good or bad. His grandparents came to India over a hundred years ago, as missionaries, and he grew up in small North Indian towns, imbibing the culture and language (Hindi and Urdu). His first interest was sports, especially cricket. He wrote beautifully on the game, and his passion for it remained rock steady all through: he was as often to be found on the field, as on set.
Because Hindi cinema of the ‘70s and ‘80s had no use for Americans, the default “firangi” was usually British and bumptious. So Tom got to play loads of Englishmen speaking variants of “koi hai Hindoostani”, from an Urdu-spouting sophisticate in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi to the very clichéd India-hating officer in Manoj Kumar’s Kranti, and several shades in between.
When Bollywood discovered that he had better Hindi than most of the actors he worked with, and that his “zubaan” in Urdu was impeccable, he did get a chance to do other kinds of roles. He went full mainstream in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda: as the black-robed Musa, he was one of the several memorable gangsters of the film, not just a stock whitey.
It’s not that he didn’t take advantage of looking like one when the time was right. A popular TV serial in the mid ‘90s, Zabaan Sambhal Ke (the “desi” version of Mind Your Language) had him play an exaggerated “angrez” in a jacket and tie: Tom went loud and broad, and enjoyed himself hugely, as did the entire cast, headlined by teacher-in-chief Pankaj Kapur. It was this series which made him a household name in an India which was just learning how much fun state-run TV, aka Doordarshan, could be.
He wasn’t just visible in film and TV. The stage was his too. Theatre gave him the kind of leeway that films did not (he formed the Motley group with Benjamin Gilani and Naseerudin Shah, his mates at FTII, where he had learnt acting under Roshan Taneja), and he played a variety of roles, most notably Maulana Azad. But cinema was where his heart lay, the heart he had lost in his youth to both Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore when he first watched Aradhana, which led to him becoming an actor.
I wonder if he was beginning today, would he have stayed so much on the margins? Would a changing Bollywood have given him 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, working all the while he was struggling with cancer: he had plans to act and direct, and to keep playing the game.
What he stood for was the spirit of India, plural, proud and diverse. Where a person of American descent could be, profoundly and forever, Indian, whether he was Dick, Harry, or Tom.