Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Alter sans Ego

Reproducing a dated Afternoon tabloid piece on actor Tom Alter. He was so full of life, it's tough to believe he is no more. Tom never got his due from Bollywood and his own Rajesh Khanna-smeared aspirations pushed him deep into the masala film abyss. Precisely why his unforgettable Captain Weston in Ray's Chess Players or stage portrayals - including Ghalib, Saahir, K L Saigal and Maulana Azad - were brutally eclipsed by his hopelessly gawdy 'Keshav Kalsi' of Junoon or the absurd bad guy of Aashiqui. People hail his 'Lucky' in Motley's Waiting for Godot production as his best, but his real talent unfolded only under Ray. Pity he couldn't follow it up with something similar, if not better. A strange mix of fate and free will we must say.

We often spoke on phone (on his landline which was invariably answered by his loyal Man friday) about his wholesome hatred for cell phones and IPL, his fleeting tryst with the Marathi language in some plain vanilla TV serial, his cousin noted writer & MIT professor Steve Alter's seminal book Sacred Waters and, last but not the least, his unflinching views on world cricket and Indian cricketers, including his much talked-about Dhoni condemnation.

I didn't agree with everything that Tom believed in, especially the staged defense of his wayward filmography or his overdone reverence to the so-called piety of yesteryear filmmakers, but the enduring chat with him over coffee and cookies at a Crossword book store is a fond memory for life....

The launch of the 22nd issue of the “Gallarie” Magazine at the Crossword bookstore, Kemp’s Corner was blessed with a munificent tinge of colour, thanks to the gracious presence of actor Tom Alter. Sporting a new crew cut-like haircut and scouting for space and seat in the cozy Crossword store, he shared his thoughts with Sudhir Raikar on issues close to his heart.

“I am very happy with my place in the Hindi film industry” he begins, dismissing the pet media claim that Bollywood typecast him in Gora Sahib roles.

“I am disturbed by this muddled media notion that defies both statistic and sentiment. In the 200-odd films that I have worked in, only 10 have cast me as “The Englishman” baddie, of which only one film called Amma has me speaking broken Hindi – Bollywood’s popular Angrez dialect. Sheer numbers tell the story. Don’t they?”

Does that mean he’s content with his screen track record? “Absolutely. The Ray classic Shataranj ke Khiladi (as Captain Weston) and Ketan Mehta’s Sardar (as Lord Mountbatten) rank very high on the artistic front, but I loved my roles in most of my films - Kranti, Sultanat, Raam Teri Ganga Maili, Veer Savarkar and Parinda, to name a few.”

Very few know that Tom starred as the leading man opposite actress Abha Dulia in Chameli Memsaab – a film that did exceptionally well outside Mumbai and other major metros. Tom is happy with his tryst with the small screen as well “I loved Junoon – playing Keshav Kalsi was undoubtedly one of the high points of my career.”

And how does he rate the current crop of artistes and films? “Well, they boast of technical finesse but the soul is missing. Corporatization has taken its toll – when the film becomes a product, art takes a back seat.” he contends.

“When was the last time we saw Yash Chopra create a movie amidst the flurry of glossy products? Even Subhash Ghai has gone the corporate way. The film industry is missing the adventure of film making – I personally miss the big and small banners of yesteryears which unfurled conviction ahead of commerce.”

He is hopeful though. “People Iike Vidhu Vinod Chopra have held fort. I liked the way Vishal Bharadwaj has gone about his directorial avatar – on his own accord. And Rajit Kapur is doing great work. This guy has substance and style.” Alter played a doctor in Kapur’s inspired but innovative Bheja Fry.

On recent media reports about his directorial plans, he sets the record straight again “This again is a media invention. I aspire to direct one day for sure, but nothing’s lined up as yet. I have the scripts ready for the film, not the finances. I keep my fingers crossed.”

Any discussion with Tom can’t be complete without cricket. Coincidentally, in the film Dressing Room, Tom played a cricket coach.

“The IPL has taken the charm away. The glamour and the cut throat competition spell bad news for test cricket in particular, as also cricketers like Kumble, Dravid, Ganguly and Laxman. You get slotted before you perform, nothing can be more depressing.”

“In a way, cricket and Hindi films sail in the same boat. Both are the victims of corporatization. If test cricket is a Guru Dutt film, the ultra-limited versions are like mediocre TV serials” he sighs with a smile.

The interactive panel at Crossword saw “Gallarie” editor Bina Sarkar Ellias discuss the relevance of religion in modern times with four eminent guest speakers – gifted script writer and lyricist Javed Akhtar, academician Zeenat Shaukat Ali, poet, painter and playwright Gieve Patel and of course prolific actor Tom Alter.

Javed Akthar spoke his heart out in his inimitable animated discourse, precisely why he stuck the right chord with the audience. Rephrasing the theme as ‘Should religion be relevant today?’ he uncovered the absurdity of the term “religious tolerance” - attacking the tyrannical quality of any religious sect that leaves no room for vocal introspection or reason. But his thought bogey ran full steam on devoted leftist tracks, failing to acknowledge faith as a bigger and larger entity, distinct from beliefs and myths.

While Ms. Ali’s discourse was predictably academic and quotation-heavy, Gieve Patel was restrained and candid in his short communiqué. Tom’s extempore was easily the highlight of the show. The cheerful actor spoke the least, smiled the most and was upbeat, albeit in his laid-back manner. His emotional address ended with an appeal recommending “Khuda ke Liye”- a commendable Pakistan production that portrays religion in the right perspective. He expressed doubts over the possibility of a similar re-examination in India of the Hindu or Christian faith, coming with the same unflinching courage and conviction.
Devoid of the poise of a celebrity speaker, he happened to be on the dais but did not belong there – his dignity was matched in equal measure by the presence of ace director Shyam Benegal, a picture of quiet introspection among the listeners.
The bulk of the audience, not surprisingly, wore elitist garbs adorned with cerebral embroidery. Most of the questions that followed the panel discussion seemed like vehicles to demonstrate the speaker’s intellectual wares. But unlike the bookshop stuff – the books, the DVDs and the coffee – they came free!