Once upon a time, five blind men came upon an elephant.
“What is this?!” asked the first one, who had run headlong into its side.
“It's an Elephant,” said the elephant's keeper…
Except that this elephant had brilliant blue eyes that stared directly not at but into you, blond hair, a rich baritone that rumbled somewhere inside your solar plexus and a nose that thespians are made of—strong and noble, like a ship’s prow. And the elephant’s name was Tom Alter. That’s the easy part, telling you his name. (Thank God, you have only one, Tom). Telling you about the rest of Tom is like—how shall I put it? Like five blind men trying to tell you what an elephant is…
“Wow! So this is what an Elephant is like!” said the first blind man, running his hands up and down the elephant's side. “Why, it's like a wall! A large, warm wall!”
First of course, there’s the bit about Tom’s nationality. What’s the problem here, you ask impatiently. It’s quite simple, isn’t it? He’s an “Angrez” settled down in India. (Angrez is an ubiquitous word that covers anybody whose skin is white and lives anywhere in the great blue yonder called Paschim.)
Ah, but you see that is not so. What is not so? That he’s not an Angrez? Yes and no. Though Tom is the son of American missionaries, he was born in Mussorie and has lived all his life—except for a brief stint in the USA, but more on that later—in India. So that makes him what? An American Indian? Nope, those are the ones whose skins are red and whose ancestors had names like Hiawatha and whom Colombus found when he reached what he thought was India but was actually America.
Okay, so how about Indian American? Nope, that makes him sound like an NRI—and he can’t be non-resident if he’s lived in India most of his life, can he? Okay, fine. So how about just Indian? I’m okay with that. There couldn’t be anyone more Indian in heart and spirit than Tom Alter and anyone who speaks Hindustani with a tehzeeb as elegant as Tom’s can’t be anything but a…well, a Hindustani? So that’s settled then. Tom is an Indian with blond hair and blue eyes who speaks Hindi like a Lucknowi nawab and plays ….
“A wall?” said the second man, wrapping his arms around the elephant’s leg. “This isn’t a wall. You can't hug a wall! This is more like a pillar. That's it! An Elephant is like a pillar!”
…cricket. It’s virtually impossible to write about Tom and not write about cricket. Because not only does Tom regularly play cricket even today (he’s pushing 50) as part of a team called—believe it or not—the MCC, it was Tom who…Puhleez. Now you’re going to tell me that Tom is a sportscaster and a writer. Yes he is. Did you know that Tom did the earliest recorded interview with Sachin Tendulkar when Sachin was just 15? That he has hosted sports shows on television like Sportlight, Quest for Gold, and One on One? And that Tom was one of the first people to predict what the commercialisation of cricket would do to the game in his regular columns on the sport in the Mid-Day and the Sunday Observer way back in the early 1990’s? (He also wrote for Debonair, Gentleman, The Independent and in 1984, together with photographer Anil Sharma, put together an 8-page colour feature on the great sports personalities of India for Sportsweek.)
And did I mention that he’s also one of the best cricket statisticians in the country, having authored a book called The Best in the World – India’s Ten Greatest World Cup Matches? Which is why when he tells you that “statistics often conceal more than they can reveal”, you believe him. “What statistics can never tell you about a batsman, for example, is his style or his timing. And the prime example of this is Vishy (Gundappa Vishwanath), whose figures, nowhere as spectacular as Sunil’s, never speak of the poetry of his batting technique or the magic of his stroke making.”
It’s difficult to say which comes first for Tom, his passion for cricket or his love for acting. Because for Tom, cricket is like acting. The actor faces the camera and the director, much the same way as the batsman faces the ball and the bowler. So it’s the bowler—or the director—who calls the shots? Yes, till you master your technique, Tom tells you. “And when you’re really batting ( or acting) well, you take control. It takes a certain boldness, a certain extreme confidence in your ability to become the attacking force as an actor or a batsman. But when you do, you dominate the director. And the bowling.”
“A pillar?” said the third man, stroking the elephant’s trunk. “It’s too thin and too flexible to be a pillar. This is more like a snake. See, it’s wrapping itself around my arm! An Elephant is just like a snake!”
Which naturally brings us to the bit about Tom that everyone knows about. And what would that be? That he’s an actor, of course. Really? Come on, don’t you know that he’s one of the most recognised faces in Indian television today, having acted in over 50 serials—Jugal Bandhi, Junoon, Zaban Sambhalke, Ghutan, Deewarein, Saher…
So what about Charas and Gandhi and Shatranj ke Khiladi and Ram Teri Ganga Maili and Kranti and Parinda and Aashiqui and Sardar and Shaheed Uddham Singh and…do you want me to list all the 150 movies he’s acted in? Okay, so Tom is one of the most recognised faces in Indian TV and Indian Films.
Actually, if it weren’t for a small town in Haryana called Jagdhani, Tom would probably have been a schoolteacher instead of an actor. (Or a missionary, like his father? No, says Tom, he never felt a calling in that direction.) Jagdhani is where his father found him a job as a schoolteacher after he dropped out of—hold your breath —Yale University, where he had been studying English Literature. And it was in Jagdhani that Tom fell passionately in love. With Hindi films, which he began to watch because there wasn’t much else to do when school was out.
There was only one place to go after that. To the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, from where he graduated in 1974. With a gold medal, presented to him at the convocation ceremony by the chief guest, Satyajit Ray, who said to him, “Tom, we’ll be working together soon.” When the call finally came from Ray’s producer—“Manik Da wants to meet you”—Tom’s reaction was “Who’s that?” The possibility that a passing remark by the great Ray would actually come true was so remote that he had forgotten it.And the rest, as they say, is cinematic history. Tom’s role in the film Shatranj ke Khiladi as Captain Weston remains even today one of its most memorable, that of a sympathetic Englishman who could see the terrible, tragic, effete beauty of Wajid Ali Shah who was never meant to be a king or wanted to be. Ray sent Tom the script of the film six months in advance, asking him to record a scene in his voice and send it back—along with a lock of his hair. Tom remembers one particular incident during the making of the film vividly. They were shooting the scene where General Outram, played by Sir Richard Attenborough, quizzes Weston about Wajid Ali Shah. Shot after shot happened, each with just one take. Ray said nothing, either in approval or rejection. Finally, a worried Attenborough came up to Tom and asked him if he’d worked with Ray before. No, said Tom. “Do you think he has film in the camera?” asked Attenborough anxiously.
People often say about Tom that he has been typecast in the role of the “Angrez”. “But I’m very proud of the fact that in the role of an Englishman, I’ve played every major English character from a scheming Robert Clive to a gentlemanly Mountbatten, spanning the whole sweep of the British Raj.”
The place in which Tom got a chance to do other kinds of roles, where he wasn’t cast as a “firangi” was television. “People didn’t give me roles for the colour of my skin in television.” Maybe, that’s partly the reason why Tom feels that television has more elbowroom for variety and experimentation. And a place for talented actors whom cinema has rejected, because there was no room for them in the rigid formulae of its system. Actors like Kanwaljit, Shekhar Suman, Benjamin Gilani…and Tom Alter?
“Snakes don't have hair!” said the fourth man in disgust, pulling the elephant's tail. “ This isn't a snake, it’s a rope. Elephants are exactly like ropes.”
Is this where we are going to talk about Motley? (I guess that’s a good word to use when Tom’s around.) Motley, which means a mixture of different things, is also the name of the theatre group of which Tom was one of the founding members, together with Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani. Started in 1979, the group has performed the works of Shakespeare, Samuel Becket, George Bernard Shaw, Neil Simon, Chekov, Edward Albee, Herman Wouk, Albert Camus and … the list is awesome.
Ask Tom if he’s a “theatre person” and he’ll say not entirely. Because “to be so requires a commitment and a passion which I, very frankly, lack. I love acting in theatre. My commitment and passion is limited to this fact.”
But ask Tom about how one does 40 performances as “Lucky” in Waiting For Godot night after night (which he did) without letting staleness creep into your acting and he’ll say, it’s like batting. (If ever there is heaven, it will be on a cricket field, wouldn’t it, Tom?) “Everything is the same—the same ball, the same stumps, the same stage, the same lines. And yet everything’s different. The weather, the pitch, the audience, the atmosphere. Every single time you face that ball or that audience, you reinvent your performance to suit the conditions. And that’s the magic.” For Tom, all sport is theatre and all great sportsmen and women are as riveting performers as the great actors.
“You guys are crazy!” the fifth man cried, feeling the elephant's ear. “It’s large alright but thin as a leaf and flexible, like a piece of cloth. No one except a complete idiot could mistake an Elephant for anything but a sail!!!”
So what shall it be, Tom? Actor, writer (you’ve even reviewed Javed Akhtar’s “Talking Films” for the London Times!), sportsman, commentator? I think more than anything else, Tom is one of the world’s last remaining gentlemen. For whom life is a Test match. Lived by the rules of nature, controlled by the natural rhythm of life. Leaving time enough for crumpets and tea and to be awed by the brilliance of Azhar’s batting or Amitabh’s acting and how they make it all seem so easy, so effortless.
But the tragedy is—not just for Tom but maybe for all of us—is that no one has the time for all that any more. Cricket and cinema have been ruined by the craving for instant gratification. “Everything’s become Macdonald. The food is not very healthy but it’s easy to buy. One-day cricket is easy to watch, but it’s not very healthy.” Which is why he feels there’s no room in our hearts for heroes anymore. Only court jesters and puppets, performing by the strings of TRP’s and sponsors and made in an instant, “like popping a tea bag into hot water.” And dispensed with as easily. “One slip and out you go. A lifetime of achievement has no meaning.”
So, in a world where increasingly, everything, even cricket or acting, has become “something to buy or sell” Tom is somewhat of a misfit. Because for him, what is important is to do it for the love of it. “The appreciation of the difficulty of what is done by an artist or a sportsman is totally lost today. It doesn’t matter if you’re a brilliant actor or writer or sportsman. If you don’t have a black Mercedes and a driver, you’re not valued by the world at large…” Judge Tom by this yardstick of success and he comes through poorly. He lives with his wife and two kids in an unassuming flat in an unfashionable part of Mumbai, has no cell phone, answers his own calls and forget the black Mercedes and the driver, does not even own a car. But then, that’s like the five blind men judging an elephant. When they don’t have the faintest about what is the being in front of them. Is Tom a bitter man? How can he be when he’s found bliss in watching that ball winging like a bird across a hot blue sky and falling with a satisfied, stinging thwack into your eagerly waiting hands…