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Not about an Englishman

The man who loves the Beatles and Bob Dylan and Mukesh and Mohammed Rafi, Tom Alter, is now in The Rising in 2005

Photo Bhagya Prakash K

RISING HIGH: Actor Tom Alter

TOM ALTER is perceptive, sensitive and a man of fine versatility. He has not been in the last 30 years a film actor alone, but an author, with three books to his credit, a Journalist, an intense theatre personality, a sports enthusiast and observer of cricket, and a lover of language. No one needs to, but Gulzar will vouch for his Urdu. And yet people do this to him — how can this man speak such good Hindi? How does he act in Hindi films? He is an Englishman. The imposition of The Outsider on Tom Alter sees no end. Tom can be warm, but he won't take nonsense. He cuts you to pieces if you are short on homework. He tells us that his life is more than an Englishman and White skin in and out of the great Hindi film.

Have you been typecast in your films? The Englishman.

I am tired of answering this question. I have been doing this for 31 years. You should learn to ask a better one. In the 225 films I've done, would you know that in more than half of them I have not played that role? How many have seen all films? Look at me as an artiste who delivers or doesn't. Am I good? Am I not? It's not about an Englishman.

Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal and Subash Ghai. Ray is realist; Benegal brings artifice, Ghai a lot more. You fit into all three sensibilities.

I've been comfortable in all these styles. Ray would give me the script six months in advance to get everything right, to work on yourself. It was great working with him. But we have to be ready to act even if scripts don't come our way.

Looking back, what films of yours do you like? What roles would you want, today, to go back to?

Charas, my first one, Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Ray's, Des Pardes, Parinda, a powerful one, Aashiqi, Sultanat, I enjoyed that, Sardar Patel, Veer Savarkar, Asambhav, for cricket, Dressing Room, Chameli Memsaab, I was the hero in that.

And roles, I would like to do Musa again. In Parinda. I think I would do it far better now than I did it then. But then there is Keshav Kalsi, Junoon. I've been an underworld don for five-and-a-half years. I'd like to Kalsi, by far my best role in front of the camera. It brought out great character. Can I do it that way now? Can't say. Some roles, once done, they are over with. You can't do them again.

Theatre. What's happening now? What theatre would you like - the humanist-universal or the contextual-historical. You've done both.

Right now I am doing 10 productions and I am doing nine of them written by Indian writers. Originals, not translations. Not much attention is paid to this. I am doing them in Hindi, English and Urdu.

Today's play, When God Says Cheers is about acceptance of God, a secular God, a God with no religion. Anyone can get to his fold, but we human beings mess it up.

Yes, I've done Maulana Azad. I've loved it because at a very difficult time, Maulana being a Muslim asked what need there was for Pakistan when Muslims already had India? He was not for the two-nation theory.

While I like this, theatre should tell stories. And the story should not be propaganda. The story should tell a whole of things. Theatre should be universal, have a story for all.

But don't specific actors perpetrate injustice? Communalism, for instance. What is your understanding of the Modi issue?

Communalism exists in all of us. It is human nature. We need to control that instinct. But I understand colour or community should not make a difference. I am very happy that the U.S. rejected Modi's visa. But I ask would we have the guts to revoke a visa for President Bush who has committed a greater crime in the world?

How has film industry changed over the last 20-25 years?

I think the film industry is more open now. We talk of themes we never used to particularly in the realm of relationships - affairs, sex and family, then violence and of course on Pakistan. There we've become blunt.

What is it in Urdu that you like so much? Should knowing Urdu mean you listen to a lot of Hindustani music?

I love poetry and I enjoy reading Faiz a lot. I am reading much of him now. When it comes to music, strangely I haven't listened to much of classical music, whether Indian or Western. I wonder why? I don't know why.

What's been the writer's life in you?

I have written for 16 years. I wrote a weekly column for The Sunday Observer for a very long time. I contributed to the Mid-Day, Gentleman and Debonair. And I wrote extensively for Sporstweek that included cricket. My latest book, The Longest Race is coming out soon from Penguin.

How do you like cricket today? And Sachin?

There's too much of one-day cricket. There should be more test cricket. But it's the money I guess.

Sachin? I've known him from 15, from the nets days in Bombay where I happened to take the first interview of him while making a film in late 1988. And after that long innings with Kambli, he dismissed my question by saying `che' when I asked him whether he was tired. At 15 he said he liked the ball coming on to the bat. Not one bit scared. He's an attacking bat. He loves Vivian Richards you see.

When we criticize him today, we should realize he has played first class cricket since 15, non-stop test and one-day cricket for 15 years and that he is 31 now, when it seems like he has a body that is 41. That's the amount of cricket he has played. He played attacking cricket in 1999. I think he has a few good knocks in him. But he wont' play like in '99 ever again. He is slowing down.

Who in your life have you liked or inspired you the most?

Nehru, for his radiant personality, Milka Singh, Pataudi, Rahul Dravid, P.T. Usha, Anju George, Rajesh Khanna a lot, who may be a exhibitionist, but is brilliant, particularly in The Train, Naseeruddin Shah, Gulzar, Tabu and the very young Sania who shows so much promise. And Amitabh, like Sachin, is the pillar of India.

What's coming up next? In writing and in film?

Well, I'm writing a travel column for India Today, and yes it's coming, The Rising.

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