Happy Birthday Tom Alter, The Mussoorie born Foreign-Looking Actor who was a complete Indian
The Padma Shri awardee may have been "of American origin" but his ability to recite "shairi" in impeccable Urdu was astonishing and reflect that Alter was, in fact, a native
For those who don’t know Tom Alter used to look like a foreigner but from his heart and ‘Juban’ he was a complete Indian.
Tom Alter was born on 22 June 1950 in Mussoorie, then part of Uttar Pradesh and now in Uttarakhand. Tom Alter's father was an American Christian missionary. He did his schooling at Woodstock School in Mussoorie. His time from 1954 to 1968 was spent in Rajpur and Mussoorie. Tom once told that when he was 8-9 years old, he asked his father a question about Rajpur - 'Why are there so many temples and ashrams in this place and why did you also come and open the Christ Meditation Center here?'
Father told son Tom - 'This part is very sacred. On one side the Ganges flows 25 miles away and on the other side, the Yamuna flows 25 miles. Rajpur is right in the middle of two great rivers, that is why this place is holy.
Tom went to Yale University in America for college studies but came back to India in a year. After coming to India, he worked as a teacher in St. Thomas' School in Jagadhri, Haryana. Tom was 19 at this time. After this, he also worked at Woodstock School for a few days. Then went back to America and started working in the hospital there.
Tom Alter was not only an actor but also a good writer. His command over Hindi and especially Urdu languages were impeccable. One can see his youtube videos even now if you want a first-hand experience on this.
Tom saw Rajesh Khanna's film 'Aradhana' in 1970 in Jagadhri. The film went well and the idea of becoming an actor engrossed in his mind. After two years, he joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) Pune. He lived there from 1972 to 1974. Here Roshan Taneja was Tom's mentor. Tom used to say - 'If I had not gone to this acting institute, no one would know me today.' Naseeruddin Shah and Om Puri were his juniors here. He was also the cricket captain in FTII for two years. Naseer also used to play a lot of cricket with him. In 1979, Tom also opened the Motley Fool Theater Group with Nasir. Later on, Tom was also HOD of acting in FTII.
After FTII he went to Mumbai to try his luck on movies. Those were the times when there were many movies made of the Indian Independence movement. That went in his favour and every time there was a need for a white supporting actor – usually in a villainish role – he was the first choice. Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi was an enormous break, but he became a widely known name only after Manoj Kumar’s Kranti, where he played an English officer. Ironically, many of those roles demanded he spoke pidgin Hindi.
Tom Alter worked in many Hindi film and Hindi TV shows in his career. Tom got his first foray into Hindi cinema in the year 1976 with the film Charas, followed by Satranj Ke Khiladi, Ram Bharose, Karma, Junoon, Aashiqui, Ram Teri Ganga Maili, Hawayen, Dhund the Fog, Bharat-Bhagya Vidhata Loknayak and many more.
The offers kept coming in but Alter never got a very meaty role that would exploit his talents to the fullest. They all wanted him to play the token foreigner, with names like Gilbert Wilson, Juan Carlos etc. Television for him was more satisfying, with serials like Zabaan Sambhalke and Khamosh Sa Afsana, in which he played Husain baba, has exploited his talent better. The theatre, which was colour blind, became another avenue – he was in landmark productions like ‘Waiting for Godot’, directed by his good friend Naseeruddin Shah for thier company Motley, jointly formed with Benjamin Gilani. He acted in many Hindustani and Urdu plays, like ‘Ghalib in Delhi’, in which he played the tole of a good poet.
Tom Alter acted in more than 300 films in his film career. He also acted in Bengali, Assamese, Gujarati, Telugu and Tamil language films. Hamari Paltan was Tom's last film.
In real world , Alter could recite shairi in impeccable Urdu. Many were impressed at this foreign-looking man who could speak in Hindustani and Urdu and maybe thought he has become a native but Alter, in fact, was native – he was born in India and had gone to high school and then to the FTII here. Alter may have been “of American origin” but was as Indian as you could get.
A Cricket Enthusiast
Before becoming an artist, he was fond of cricket, and his hobby was not limited to just watching. He used to play cricket when he got time, Tom Alter was also the first video interviewer of Sachin Tendulkar. This interview was recorded on 19 January 1989 when Sachin was only 15 years old.
He had coached his young students in cricket after coming back from the US within the 1960s and frequently played for the Bollywood teams. In the 1980s turned to write on the sport with an astute eye for and appreciation of the game. His articles on cricket appeared in a lot of publications.
In 2008, Tom Alter was honored with the Padma Shri Award. Tom Alter, a fine man and a great artist, died on 29 September 2017 at the age of 67 in Mumbai due to skin cancer. Tom Alter will always live among us till eternity and beyond through his art.