A scene in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi best exemplifies the kind of person Tom Alter was. In it, General Outram (Richard Attenborough), sent to Lucknow by the East India Company as resident – with the ultimate aim of taking over Avadh – is asking his young aide-de-camp Captain Weston about the ruler, Wajid Ali Shah.
Outram is sceptical about a king who prays five times a day, flies kites, dresses up as a Hindu god and dances with girls writes poetry. “I am not a poetry man myself”, he says and asks Weston to recite some of the King’s verses, which he does, in flawless Urdu. It is clear that Weston is more sympathetic, and may have even gone native.
In real life, Alter could recite shairi in impeccable Urdu. Many were impressed at this obviously foreign-looking man who could speak in Hindustani and Urdu and perhaps thought he had gone native. But Alter, in fact, was native – he was born in India and had gone to school and then the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) here. Alter may have been “of American origin” but was as Indian as you could get.
His grandparents had come to India 100 years ago – possibly in 1916 – as missionaries and had gone to Chennai – then Madras – and then to Sialkot. After Partition his father moved to Rajpur near Dehradun and Alter went to Woodstock in Mussoorie. A short stint in Yale followed, after which he was back, teaching in a school.
Alter always used to say that he was so taken by Rajesh Khanna when he saw Aradhana for the first time that he decided to become an actor. He trained at the FTII, graduating in 1974, an oddity in an industry that sought out chocolate-faced heroes and then, angry young men. He was obviously neither.
That USP 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 a big break, but he became a widely known name only after Manoj Kumar’s Kranti, where he played an English officer. Ironically, many of these roles demanded he spoke pidgin Hindi.
The offers kept coming, but Alter never got a really meaty role that could exploit his talents to the fullest. They all wanted him to play the token foreigner, with names like Gilbert Wilson, Juan Carlos, Arnie Camblee, Frank and Dr Taubman. Television was a bit more satisfying, with serials like Zabaan Sambhalke and Khamosh Sa Afsana, in which he played Husain baba. The theatre, which was colour blind, became another avenue – he was in landmark productions such as ‘Waiting for Godot’, directed by his good friend Naseeruddin Shah for their company Motley, jointly formed with Benjamin Gilani. He acted in many Hindustani and Urdu plays, such as ‘Ghalib in Delhi’, in which he played the great poet.
But his abiding love was cricket. He had coached his young students in cricket after returning from the US in the 1960s and regularly played for a Bollywood team. In the 1980s turned to writing on the sport with an astute eye for and appreciation of the game. In 1989, he was the first person to interview a very young Sachin Tendulkar on video. His articles on cricket appeared in a variety of publications and his son Jamie is a sports editor with the Times of India. He was awarded the Padma Shri in 2008.
Alter wrote several books and was recently contemplating writing about his family history. He had also planned to direct a film, a murder mystery and was keen to get old timers Sharmila Tagore and Manoj Kumar in it.