face to face You'll soon see him in The Rising. Tom Alter has done it all -- movies, theatre and journalism
Photo: SANDEEP SAXENA
Tom Alter: `Look at me as an artiste who delivers'
TOM ALTER is perceptive, sensitive and versatile. In the last 30 years, he has not only been a film actor, but also an author, with three books to his credit, a journalist, an intense theatre-person, a sports enthusiast and a lover of language. And Gulzar himself vouches 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." Tom can be warm, but he won't take nonsense. He's also testy about being taken for granted. Excerpts from an interview.
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. 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; Ray's Shatranj Ke Khiladi; 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. 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 do 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, 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, nine of them by Indian writers. Originals, not translations. Not much attention is paid to this. I am doing them in Hindi, English and Urdu. Yes, I've done Maulana Azad. Theatre should tell stories. And the story should not be propaganda.Theatre should be universal, have a story for all.
But don't specific actors perpetrate injustice? Communalism, for instance...
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.
How has the 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, Pakistan.
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 Mid-Day, Gentleman and Debonair. And I wrote extensively for Sportsweek. 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 do my first interview with him while making a film in 1988. When we criticise him today, we should realise 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. .
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