New Delhi: He has comfortably slipped into playing Sardar Patel and Lord Mountbatten on screen and effortlessly reprised the roles of Urdu poet-lyricist Sahir Ludhianvi and Maulana Azad on stage. But thespian Tom Alter – often called a “firang” for his western looks but who insists he is an Indian – desires to enact the roles of two stalwarts of partition, Jawaharlal Nehru and Muhammad Ali Jinnah.
“Jinnah is a very controversial figure to play. But I personally feel there is something to learn from him. Why he became a fanatic, no one knows. If we can find that out, I am sure there must be something to learn from it,” Alter told in an interview.
“I have played so many roles, but playing Nehru and Jinnah on stage should be exciting. We haven’t explored the lives of these people,” he added.
If one connects the dots of Alter’s journey, it bears striking resemblance to that of a Bollywood movie: a 19-year-old school teacher is inspired after watching late veteran Rajesh Khanna’s performance in “Aradhana”. He packs his bags and gets admitted to the prestigious Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and the rest, as they say, is history.
Though his debut film was “Charas”, the Padma Shri recipient is fondly remembered for his role of Captain Weston in Satyajit Ray’s “Shatranj Ke Khiladi” whom he had met at FTII’s convocation day in 1974, where Alter had won a gold medal.
“He passed by me and said ‘we will be working together’. Initially I thought it was a figment of my imagination and then I forgot about it. But I did get a call after a year and a half from him for this role,” he recollected.
Working with one of the finest filmmakers did influence Alter, as he firmly believes in what Ray had said in his convocation day speech.
“I make films for myself. Fortunately, some other people also like them,” Ray had said.
The 63-year-old stayed away from the conventional path and razzmatazz of Bollywood. He nurtured his creative dimensions and branched out into theatre, writing and television.
In a career spanning over three decades he has worked in over 300 movies, written three books, is an active theatre actor and as a keen observer of sports, has contributed to various magazines and newspapers.
But nothing is tiresome for the multi-faceted actor.
“We all can do it. We all used to do so much in school. I was into so many things – editing the school magazine, playing sports and a bit of studies,” said Alter whose green eyes and fair skin have labeled him a “gora” or “firang”.
“I am an Indian. My family lineage may be different, but I was born here. I hold an Indian passport. I don’t need to prove my credentials to anyone,” Alter asserted.
Alter wants to finish his two pending books: a novel on theatre and another on a poet. But his work commitments are not giving him much time.
He has directed a serial for DD Urdu, “Ek Fursat-e-Gunah”. Set during the partition of the sub-continent in 1947, the story is about the coming together of three friends.
“I was born post-Partition so I haven’t seen much. But my family has been through that, so in some ways the loss and pain of meeting does evoke many emotions,” Alter said.