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The blue-eyed sahib!

Film actor, writer and theatre personality Tom Alter wears many hats. But he has one heart, and it beats for art, finds RANA SIDDIQUI ZAMAN

Photos (cover and centrespread): ANU PUSHKARNA

In the swing of things Tom Alter says he sees a ray of hope in Bollywood’s filmmakers who are trying to be rid of the ‘corporate clutches’. Is that making him swing with joy?

With those good looks and a Diwan-e-Ghalib in hand, Tom Alter makes a fascinating picture. And mind you, he can give any Urdu ustad a run for his money. And that’s precisely the reason why theatre director Sayeed Alam has chosen him for the ro le of Ghalib. Called “Ghalib”, the play would be staged at Shri Ram Centre at 7.30 this Saturday evening.

“An honour”, but if played as a cult figure, it would be difficult to portray him, says Tom, adding, “It is not difficult to complicate Ghalib but I am playing his simple self and the naughtiness he was synonymous with. We are showing four stages of the poet: childhood, youth, middle age and old age, but in an entertaining way. We have not tried to portray him as a sufi or philosopher.” “There is no attempt to make him egoistic, altruistic, scheming, eccentric, bureaucratic and self evasive as he was known to be,” Alam chips in. “Some in the audience may mind that we haven’t gone into the minute details of his life. But we have retained that controversy wherein he was considered a traitor by the Indians and a rebel by the British,” adds Tom.

Childhood days

Tom can endlessly talk about Ghalib but one diverts his attention to one more nostalgic thing of his life; his childhood days in Mussoorie where he was born. The trick works. He is already transported to the hills. Plonking himself on the sofa, he reminisces, “That was heaven. My parents gave me a fantastic atmosphere at home. We were surrounded by philosophers, thinkers, musicians, singers, litterateurs, sports persons at Woodstock. They had opened a Maseehi Dhyan Kendra (an ashram) at Rajpur which was a meeting and prayer centre. It was located at a point from where we could hear the fusion sound of the bells of Hindu and Tibetan temples and the Ramtirth Ashram. It used to be overpowering.”

In school Tom was very good at acting, music, hunting, cycling and other extracurricular activities. “Those days if any student didn’t participate in such activities, he was called a nikamma,” he laughs. Lazy in studies, he always tried to better himself in all other activities — from sports to hunting. “My elder brother John Alter and I used to walk for four miles up on the hills to reach our school. It’s that health walk that has kept me strong at this age,” he says with pride.

And he always loved his healthy body, so never yielded to alcohol or smoking.

“Frankly, I never had the urge to drink or smoke. Moreover, I lost many friends to smoking, alcohol and drugs.” But then, not smoking was detrimental to a few of his performances, especially when he played Maulana Abul Kalam Azad. “Smokers have a peculiar style of lighting a cigarette, holding it between their fingers and exhaling the fumes. I could never copy that style. So while playing Maulana, who was a smoker, I used to be occupied in lighting the cigarette in the scene but could never do that in style. I always regret that,” the performer in Tom seems visibly upset.

All bad men of the Hindi cinema are known to be teetotallers and non-smokers, “but I was not a bad man in the Hindi cinema,” he interrupts adding, “yesterday, I made a list of my 200 films and found that I am an angrez badmash only in one film and in most others I am a nek aadmi. It’s a misconception that I played bad men more often.”

If childhood memories make him smile, the very word ‘corporate’ in the context of the Hindi film industry makes him unhappy. “Aapne to dukhti rag par hath rakh diya,” he sighs adding that corporate houses are the worst thing to happen to Bollywood. “Art can never grow under a corporate world. They have come up with a new breed called production designers who command even producers. After completing the film, the producer shows it to the production designer. He would sit like a king and ask, ‘So, where have you shot? How many songs? Who is the music director?’ While watching the film, he would command, ‘change this white and use blue colour on the walls and curtains so that it matches the hero’s shirt!’ They have nothing to say about actors or the content. Design for them is T-20 and the film a Test match. Corporate culture has ruined great filmmakers like Manmohan Desai, Ramanand Sagar, B.R. Chopra — though he survived because of Mahabharat. We don’t need them. Did filmmakers and actors like Raj Kapoor, Guru Dutt, Dilip Kumar and Dev Anand need corporates to ‘design’ their film? For God’s sake, we don’t need them,” Tom is visibly angry. An angry Tom is hungry by now. They say food is a good pacifier. Some grub and the smile comes back. Waving us adieu he says, “Bahut maza aaya, I spoke from my heart today.”

( rana@thehindu.co.in)

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