After Tom Alter’s passing last week, a YouTube video of Alter interviewing a young Sachin Tendulkar, back in January 1989, went viral. “Sachin, you must be getting tired now of people asking you questions, and giving interviews a lot…,” Alter, looking dapper as ever, says to the 16-year-old cricketing prodigy. It is a brief encounter, though an interesting one, between a true connoisseur of sports and a soon-to-be great practitioner.
“Through my first ever TV interview, met a true sports lover and a good human being. You will live in our hearts forever. RIP #TomAlter.” This tweet by Tendulkar was among the many tributes paid to Alter after his death, at age 67, on 29 September.
Alter’s cricket love wasn’t restricted to the sidelines. In 1983, he participated in a major exhibition match between Indian XI and USA XI, playing alongside Sunil Gavaskar. Writing in Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack 2016, Alter relived the big moments of that game: “I bowled four good overs, got the rival captain l.b.w., and was embraced by Gavaskar, Kirmani, Madan, Mohinder, Ravi and Roger… We won the match.”
Alter’s passion for cricket, and for sports in general, was only rivalled by his love for theatre and for cinema. For Alter, watching the 1969 film Aradhana, starring Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore, marked the beginning of his lifelong interest in, and association with, Bollywood. “I still dream of being Rajesh Khanna,” Alter said in a 2009 interview. “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.”
But there was the theatre before there were films. Alter was among India’s best acclaimed theatre artistes, besides having been a renowned director and a gifted playwright. He made his stage debut with a rendition of Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot in 1979 at the Prithvi Theatre in Bombay. Then followed a long and fruitful career.
Director and Sahitya Award-winning playwright Mahesh Dattani spoke to Guardian 20 about his encounters with Alter. “Unfortunately, I never got a chance to work with him but I met him on several accounts. I was doing a play called Alchemist, and there was a role of an Englishman. I happened to offer him that role and I remember he felt offended at my asking him to play an Englishman. So his love for Indian culture was pure. He was very polished and cultivated. The second time I met him, we were shooting for Shyam Benegal’s TV serial Sanvidhaan, and he was playing Maulana Azad, and I remember that he was perfect in the first take but because of technical reasons the director wanted a retake. Every time I met him, he was very polite and absolutely warm and friendly.”
Born in 1950 in Mussoorie, Dehradun, Alter, from an early age, developed a taste for literature and poetry. His love for the Urdu language, too, was unparalleled. He kept with him two versions of the Bible, one in English and the other in Urdu, which helped him master Ghalib’s language. (Alter also played the protagonist in M. Sayeed Alam’s play, Ghalib.)
His literary side was more developed and refined than most people tend to think. Alter regularly wrote for Indian publications and authored three books. Film and stage actor Denzel Smith, who has had a long professional association with Alter, remembered his friend so: “Alter was a fantastic human being and an artiste, which is a very rare combination. He came across as an unusual soul to whomever he met. He made them feel he was listening to them and that he was close to them. He was a very talented writer who also wrote books. He had a great sense of humour. What I have learned from him is how to listen to people and how to be completely rooted and down-to-earth, no matter whatever the situation is.”
The ’90s was the golden decade for Alter’s television career. Jamie Alter, son of the legendary actor, spoke to Guardian 20 about his father’s prolific life on the screen and the stage. “After the economic boom in the ’90s, when TV channels became bigger, probably that was his most busy phase,” Jamie Alter said. “He had eight to nine shows at a given time. There were shows like Zabaan Sambhalke and Junoon, and many more. In some 42 years, he did 300 movies and 25-30 TV shows and 40 plays. All these things put together is his legacy.”
In 2008, Alter was awarded the Padma Shri by the government of India. “He was very proud and emotional when he received the Padma Shri award,” Jamie said. “It was a very huge achievement for him.”
“He was doing eight to nine plays across the globe, so he was very busy with the stage,” Jamie Alter, talking about his father’s last months, said. “He also had 14-15 movies lined up for release. All he used to say was, ‘I have to get well soon’.”
Younger actors and artistes have a lot to learn from a life so fully lived. And Alter himself was very supportive towards emerging talent. Actress Shilpi Shukla, who featured in the film Chak De! India, recalled her first meeting with Alter. “I met Tom sir in October 2012 in Simla to judge a big children’s theatre festival, called TREAT, at the legendary gothic theatre, Gaiety,” Shukla told Guardian 20. “It was a treat indeed! Felt like a time warp. I was his fan and to be sharing the stage with him was a dream come true. He danced, he sang, he recited poetry and gave himself totally and unconditionally to these children. It was one of the most inspiring meetings that I had had in a long time. He was exceptionally knowledgeable, with no pride. A part of him will always be with me. That child-like quality, I will always remember him for that.”
Alter continued working till his very last. His 2017 short Black Cat was directed by Bhargav Saikia. “I met Tom Alter for Ruskin Bond’s role since I knew they were very good friends in real life and that both of them are from Mussoorie,” Saikia told Guardian 20. “Alter never kept a phone with him. So I emailed him saying that I wanted him to play Ruskin Bond’s character in my short film. He got on board instantly. I had watched his films and some of his plays also and I was completely amazed, specially by his theatre performances. He had such good grasp of languages, specially Urdu and of course English. A very special thing working with Alter was that it became more than the director-actor relationship; he was a teacher to all of us on the set because of his vast experience in cinema and theatre. As soon as my short film came out and after the screening of the film, he gave me a tight hug. That was one moment that I will always cherish.”
Alter cared for other people’s time, and tried to manage his time as efficiently as possible. “He always used to say that you should not waste anyone’s time,” Jamie Alter told us. “If you have a work commitment, you should be there five minutes before and be ready when they come. He used to get very angry when somebody made him wait. There are so many big banner movies, they would call him for costume fitting and would make him wait for two hours—so he used to just walk out. Respecting someone and someone’s time is what I learned from him and tried to apply to my life.”
In January 2017, Alter quit his position as the head of the acting department at the Film and Television Institute of India. Then, the reports came out that he had been suffering from skin cancer. “He was doing eight to nine plays across the globe, so he was very busy with the stage,” Jamie Alter, talking about his father’s last months, said. “He also had 14-15 movies lined up for release. All he used to say was, ‘I have to get well soon because a lot of people have invested time and money in me. I have to honour my work commitment.’”