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Siraj Syed


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Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics.
Festival Correspondent, Film-critic, Feature-writer.


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Tom Alter: Actor, Cricketer, Urdu lover and Caucasian

Tom Alter: Actor, Cricketer, Urdu lover and Caucasian

Unlikely combination of professions and hobbies for a man named Thomas Beach Alter, who hailed from a family of American missionaries. His acting abilities were never in doubt, and the barest accent betrayed his ethnicity. But his skin and hair distinguished him from other Indian co-actors quite noticeably, and he had to be content with parts showing him as a British colonial or modern day baddie. There were occasions when he was made to sport a wig, to help him appear more credible as an Indian. But there was little they could do about his skin.

In a manifestation of deep irony, Tom Alter contracted skin cancer and had a thumb surgically removed last year. His pink skin was showing some signs of the malaise when I last met him in November 2016, at Goa, but I confess I did not realise the seriousness of his ailment. Stage-4 skin cancer claimed him on 29th September.

Reports had been appearing about his illness for a whole year. Some shows of plays, wherein he was playing the main roles, had to be either cancelled or performed without him. How I missed these reports is a question that will haunt me for a very long time. At the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), Goa, he was there to conduct an acting workshop, and I was delighted to meet him. Appearing somewhat tired and haggard, he was still his warm self. His scraggly looks were nothing unusual, what with his dishevelled grey hair, beard and moustache.

There was a press conference which he attended, along with other workshop conductors from the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, Tom’s alma mater, where he bagged top honours in acting. From the press ranks, I egged him on to talk about his experiences of Urdu-Hindi, considering he was American. “Don’t abuse me. I am not American. I was born in India, so was my father. It was my grandfather who came to India from America.” I hastened to clarify that I was referring to his Caucasian ethnicity and not nationality. He grinned, “I was just pulling your leg,” and went on to give an elaborate answer. Later, I dropped in at the workshop for a couple of minutes and he introduced me to some of the participants. That was the last time we spoke.

Forgive me Tom. I did not know you were seriously ill this last one year, though I should have. I did not spend any time with you in the last ten months, and the loss is entirely mine. When I learnt about the gravity of your illness two weeks ago, you were already in the Intensive Care Unit of Saifee Hospital, Mumbai, and visitors were not allowed. Next I heard was that you had passed on. Now, I can only shed tears, and rue my ignorance. Destiny has not been kind to me, and it was destined that you will leave this world without a final goodbye from me, leaving me some fond memories, memories that are very dear but that do not do full justice to the warmth, humility, simplicity and greatness that you embodied.

We met socially, many times, during the 70s, 80s and early 90s, and I often wrote about his work. I was a drama critic, and he had founded a theatre group, along with Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani. Later, I was editing a magazine called TV&Video World, while he was acting in many TV serials. Subsequently, I was offered an assignment to handle the public relations for the afternoon edition of a block-buster serial, Junoon, wherein he had a major role, as gangster Keshav Kalsi. And then I was the voice over that gave the recap of the previous episode in the Zee TV marathon, Tara, featuring Tom. I also read with keen interest Tom’s writings on cricket, marvelled at the fact that he played cricket himself and was even a coach. Besides, he co-ordinated a film industry cricket team that played/practiced regularly on a suburban ground.

Acting in all media—films, TV, theatre and stage—and playing cricket were common passions between us. Whereas Tom developed a fascination for cinema after seeing Aradhana, my first choice of profession was always cricket. Asthma and the need to perform well at studies prevented me from pursuing cricket, though my predecessors and contemporaries at Bharda New High School included inspiring names like Vijay Merchant, Polly Umrigar, Nari Contractor, Budhi and Bharat Kunderan, Rusi Surti, Karim and Salim Khermohammed, Kailash Gattani, Siraj Dharsey and Kiran Asher. Acting was something I was wooed into. The unfulfilled ambition kept haunting me, and was redeemed, at least in part, in the year 1996, when I was 44 and Tom 46.

It was hard to believe that I was chosen to start the India-centric Hindi service of the sports satellite channel ESPN, and relocated to Singapore. ESPN’s main thrust was---what else—cricket, and I was to arrange for commentary. Those were the days of off-tube commentary, when the matches were played in one country, our commentators watched it on TV feeds in Singapore and did off-tube commentary in Hindi for audiences on India to watch. The concept was alien. However, names like Salim Durani and Arun Lal did not take long to get the hang of it. There were half a dozen other names on my roster, yet this was my chance to add the name of an actor to the list. Tom had done some excellent interviews, including one of Sachin Tendulkar when he was 15, and written some knowledgeable articles on the game. It was time he did cricket commentary, I thought

When he landed in Singapore, he was really excited. To the best of my knowledge, he had never done TV cricket commentary before, and he had a ball on the mike. One day, while dropping him back to his hotel in a taxi, we passed several churches. Here was an American missionary’s son, born in India, doing cricket commentary in Hindi/Urdu on an American channel from Singapore, for Indian audiences. I asked him about the various denominations of Christian churches, and he revealed that his family was Presbyterian with origins in Boston. Tom lived at the Methodist Center, YMCA, near Mumbai Central, where he often played basketball. He never moved into a regular apartment, never carried a mobile phone and only adopted email rather late in the day.

Shortly after the Singapore stint, Tom returned to India, while I stayed on in Singapore till 2004. When I came back, theatre had once again become a big passion with Tom, and he was playing roles of one historical titan after another, winning accolades: Mirza Ghalib, Maulana Abul Kalaam Azad, Gandhi, K.L. Saigal, Henry Lawrence (Larins Saahab). He was often on tour and gradually began to spend more time at his home in Mussoorie, where he grew up (batch of ’68, Woodstock School) when free. Taking on another career, Tom penned three books, one on cricket and two works of fiction: The Best of the World, The Longest Race and Rerun at Rialto.

A pleasant surprise was awaiting me when I went for my one of my cricket practice sessions at Mahim. Coach Dilip Pithadia had invited Tom, whom he knew quite well, as a guest. My cricket was clearly rusty. Though I could bat tolerably, my once accurate pace bowling was nowhere near its best. Of course, you cannot hope to bowl any kind of impressive pace at age 54, but I nevertheless tried. After watching me for a few minutes, the coach in him surfaced and 56 year-old Tom commented, “Siraj, you must utilise the crease. There is still one metre to go when you release the ball.” I was aware of this shortcoming, and was doing it only because the ball ended up a full-toss whenever I went too close to the crease. But the point was well-taken.

I met his family for the first and only time in 2011, at the release of his friend, the late Bob Cristo’s autobiography, Flashback: My Life and Times in Bollywood and Beyond, in 2011. He still recalled that Singapore commentary stint with great fondness and told his family about the good times we had. Bob was an Australian Civil Engineer turned mercenary killer who came to India to trace out actress Parveen Babi, whose picture on the cover of Time magazine had mesmerised him. Cristo ended up playing baddies in Hindi movies, not too dissimilar to the characters portrayed by Tom. Tom Alter, on the other hand, had entered filmdom because he wanted to become Rajesh Khanna.

It was Dilip Kumar who told him early in his career that the secret of great acting was to interpret roles through poetry, “sher-o-shairi.” Tom took the tip very seriously and polished his knowledge of Urdu language and poetry by retaining no less a person than Dilip Kumar’s own family patron-scholar for several years, and then bedazzled a whole country with the dichotomy of being an American by genetics but a well-read Urdu scholar and actor by merit. At the workshop in Goa, he corrected the grammar of two participants. “It’s not mazaa aa rahee hae (feminine), but mazaa aa rahaa hae (masculine)” and “there cannot be an akelee jagaah (alone place), though you might be alone at a place.” What is more, he named his daughter Afshaan, which is Urdu/Persian for 'sprinkler/disperser'.

Tom’s list of films includes much talked-about names like Gandhi, Kranti, Aashiqui, Shatranj Ke Khilari and Veer Zaara, I last saw him in The Path of Zarthustra (2014), where he was cast as a Parsee grand-father, by Oorvazi Irani. Oorvazi and I were in the Selection Jury for the International Children’s Film Festival of India (ICFFI), Hyderabad, November 2016, and attending screenings, when the news of his hospitalisation reached us. Incidentally, Tom had played the lead role in the Children’s Film Society of India (CFSI, organisers of ICFFI)’s production of Yeh Hai Chakkad Bakkad Bumbe Bo (2003), a poster of which adorns the walls of the CFSI office. We completed our duties on the 29th of September and she and I headed home that evening, unaware that Tom’s innings had come to an end, at 67. By the time we reached home, he was back to the heavenly pavilion.

Cricket is called a gentleman’s game. One gentleman, whose company will be sorely missed by every team he played with and every spectator he enthralled, went by name of Tom Alter.

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


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