‘I still dream of being Rajesh Khanna’
Actor, writer and theatreperson Tom Alter holds forth on films and more in an e-mail interview.
PHOTO: A.M. FARUQUI
Rave Reviews: Tom Alter in and as “Maulana”. P
He’s done his fair share of cameo appearances especially when Bollywood wanted a foreign face but there’s much more to Tom Alter, as his filmography proves. And, be warned, he doesn’t quite relish the gora tagR
30; “I’m not a foreigner,” he says, the firmness quite palpable even via e-mail. He’s done films, — potboilers and arty types — written books, been a sports journalist (with articles in Sportsweek, Outlook, Cricket talk, Sunday Observer and Debonair) and a theatreperson. His roles as Maulana Abul Kalam Azad in “Maulana Azad” and the poet Mirza Ghalib in “Ghalib” saw Alter get rave reviews for his Urdu diction. He’s also played author William Dalrymple in the stage adaptation of City of Djinns, where he shared stage space with doyenne Zohra Sehgal.
But his reason for getting into films was “to be like Rajesh Khanna”. Asked if he still feels that way, he replies, “I still dream of being Rajesh Khanna. For me, in the early 1970s, he was the only hero — romantic to the core, not larger than life, so Indian and real — he was my hero; the reason I came into films and he still is.” And no, he says, he had no trouble breaking into Bollywood. Initial work came his way thanks to “my looks, but more so because I could act and speak the language.”
Ask about his experiences of working with directors as diverse as Satyajit Ray (“Shatranj Ke Khiladi”); Raj Kapoor (“Ram Teri Ganga Maili”) and Shyam Benegal (“Junoon”), he says, “Ray was controlled brilliance; Raj-sahib was inspired and romantic vision, and Shyam was intellectual art.”
Given that he’s been seen recently in “Bheja Fry” and “Rang Rasiya”, you can’t help being curious about his view of films being made today. “I am so happy that we are making films with original story-lines, original problems; about India of today,” he says, naming “A Wednesday” and “Lage Raho Munna Bhai” as films he liked. Then “before these ‘Omkara’; also liked ‘Rock On’.” But he’s not very happy about the corporatisation of filmmaking. In fact, he says, it was “almost the death of the creative spirit in Hindi films but we have survived.”
His most recent release was Rajesh Shera’s “Ocean of an Old Man” based on the 2004 tsunami that caused such damage in the Andaman & Nicobar Islands. Alter plays an old schoolteacher living on one of the islands who loses five of his students and his wife in the disaster. The film was very well received in the festival circuit and released in India last month. Alter is brutally frank in saying that the film saw a commercial release only because of the strike. He adds, “It is a beautiful and evocative film, not made to run to full-houses in Bombay or anywhere else but people did watch it. I have received the most wonderful reactions; it is a work of beauty a pioneering film.”
Recently Alter shared screen space with the legendary Peter O’Toole (“Lawrence of Arabia) in “One Night with the King”. The experience was “like playing cricket with Gavaskar, which I have also had the joy of doing. Being with O’ Toole was like finding a long-lost elder brother; I loved it.”
Having straddled films, television and theatre, you wonder if he has any preferences for any one of the mediums. But Alter is clear that he can’t do without all three because he “loves acting, in any form”. He elaborates, “When your film releases on Friday, it is the experience of a lifetime, because of the difficulties and challenges of film-making. When your serial becomes popular, the excitement is as if you have found a new family. And when a play works, you are sharing yourself, live, with the world; so all three are wonderful.”
Moving away from his acting, he’s also an author with three books to his credit – two novels and one on cricket – why hasn’t he written film scripts. The answer is quite startling. “I have three film scripts ready, all my own. One day I will make them into films.” But he doesn’t commit to a timeframe.
And finally on his passion: cricket. Alter was part of for a filmi team Match Cut Club that also included names like Naseeruddin Shah, Satish Shah, Vishal Bhardwaj, Aamir Khan and Nana Patekar. So what’s his take on the T20 mania? Not surprisingly, he hates the IPL. “It is based on greed and revenge”. He’s milder about the T20 World Cup (“it is country vs. country”) but he says, “T-20 is eroding the base of test cricket in the name of money and excitement, and that is very, very sad.”
Films: Cycle-kick, Mera Bachpan, Rang Rasiya
Plays: Waiting for Godot (marathi), K.L. Saigal, The Mahatma and the Poetess, Pencil Se Brush Tak, Trisanga, Intihaa, The Last Annal of Alamgir … and many more.
Filmmaker: David Lean, Hrishikesh Mukherjee
Film: Lawrence of Arabia, Anand
Sportsperson: Milkha Singh, Prakash Padukone
Book: Old Man and The Sea, Deewan-e-Ghalib
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