Tom Alter – The Saheb of Bollywood

Tom Alter talks to the writer in Dudhwa National Tiger Reserve and says he is more than just the token firang of Hindi cinema.

I ventured deep into the core area of the Dudhwa National Tiger Reserve during the 2014 Lok Sabha Elections in search of the Tharus, a tribe that claims Rajput ancestry and lives in the Terai region along the Indo-Nepal border in Uttar Pradesh’s Lakhimpur Kheri district. In the forest, I bumped into actor Tom Alter, the perpetual ‘foreigner’ in Indian cinema, who was exploring one of his lesser known interests — wildlife. Excerpts from a chat:

Tom AlterWhat drew you to Dudhwa?

I have always wanted to visit Dudhwa, and the perfect opportunity was a TV project called Jungle ki Kahaaniyaan, in which we look at various wildlife issues across the nation. And Dudhwa, in its mysterious way, was most fascinating.

Does your interest in wildlife have anything to do with your childhood?

I was born and brought up in Mussoorie, surrounded by the forest. I spent many winter days in Jim Corbett Park as a boy and young man; I loved fishing, but not so much hunting. To be alone with a fishing rod on the banks of a lovely, clean, flowing river surrounded by forest with the whole day ahead of you is paradise.

Do you feel wildlife as an issue has been well-represented in Hindi cinema? Or in theatre?

Wildlife, in its full beauty, has been the backdrop of many films but the issues of wildlife… no; they have not been dealt with in the depth they demands. I am trying to make a film on Jim Corbett, as my tribute to him and his jungle world.

Could you elaborate that?

I have a dream to make a film about one day in Jim Corbett’s life — the day when he finally captured, on film, six tigers together by the banks of a stream near Kaladungi. The film will touch upon that great man’s entire life in the course of that one day — his sister, Maggie; his shikari friends; his favourite forest; his dreams; his wishes for the tiger and for India; why he gave up hunting for pleasure, and so much more.

Your appearances in Bollywood have become limited today. Is there a place for actors when dash and glamour seem to score over talent?

I never use the word ‘Bollywood’ — this is a marketing ploy that became a fashion about 25 years ago. I — and many others — work in the Hindi film industry, based in Mumbai. Dash and glamour have always been important parts of Hindi films. So I have no complaints. And I am not a theatre person. I am an actor who works in films, television, and theatre.

Do you think a theatre actor needs to compromise on success to have a fulfilling acting career?

Any artist — any person — makes compromises when his or her heart permits. I view my art, acting, as something without any boundaries.

You have always carried the burden of the “firangi” on the screen, despite being fluent in Hindi and Urdu.

This is totally untrue — in 95 per cent of my Hindi films, I have spoken Hindustani, which I speak in real life, and my roles have covered many dimensions and colours.

Tell us about what inspired or impacted your acting.

I grew up surrounded by poetry, literature, sports and a deep love for language. My earliest favourite was Peter O’Toole in Lawrence of Arabia, but sports was my true passion, and still is. I acted in school under two amazing teachers, Frenchie and Joan Browne. They instilled deep within me the quest for perfection.

Any other talents that you are hiding from the viewer?

I love to sleep.

What about your love for Urdu poetry?

I am still trying to understand Urdu poetry. As I said, I grew up surrounded by poetry and language. My brother, John, is a brilliant poet and I had a very fine teacher in school, Bill Starr. Urdu was the language that my parents loved.

Do you think your “western” appearance prevented you from getting any major roles?

My looks are me, and I have no regrets. It has been a very fulfilling and rewarding career, and continues to be so. My talents — for whatever they are worth — have been fully welcomed in the Hindi film industry.

How relevant is the ‘western-looking actor’ today in India?

Can there be another Tom Alter? I have no idea about the ‘western-looking actor’. My work has always totally transcended any colour or any look. As for another ‘Tom Alter’, there can never be ‘another’ anyone.



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