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!

Don't let public transit make Chicago a Go or No Go

A wild Garlic named Chicagoua grew here in abundance once, which is believed to have given the windy city its legendary name. Probably the same onion genus species left its pungent taste in the form of Chicago's pathetic public transit system, easily one of the worst among world's premier cities. What a Greek tragedy for a metropolis of phenomenal skyscrapers and iconic museums, thriving on the banks of the soul-stirring Lake Michigan.

Mention the acronym CTA and most commoners would sweat profusely, cursing the mass transit operator of mass disruption and massive distress. Our sojourn here, during a whirlwind Midwestern tour, proved a nightmarish trailer of their day to day plight.

Fed up of the frequent bus bunching horrors, we preferred long walks to practically every destination. And the much-publicized Ventra card is everything a card should not be. To escape the torture of single-ride tickets priced higher than normal, scanner problems, rush hour traffic, rude staff and non-existent refunds, we shifted base from the bustling downtown Airbnb accommodation to a deserted Mount Prospect Hampton Inn. We found METRA trains and PACE buses more convenient and comfortable. Now, Mount prospect may not be the ideal base camp for someone like me who needed to be downtown every single day, and also given the lack of quality Indian restaurants in the region. Yet, the Metra did a fairly good to and fro job for us. Trains were almost on time, every time, and never overcrowded. We even enjoyed seated naps on occasions and the conductors were invariably friendly, so was the ticket counter staff at Mount Prospect station. Even the RTA PACE buses were our faithful wheeled friends for quick visits to Des Plains or Arlington Heights. The experience with the 606 (Rosemont CTA station to Mount Prospect) was not great though. And the connectivity is a big issue. A car ride from Mount Prospect to Naperville takes 45 minutes while the train would cover the same distance (read displacement) in two hours (Mount Prospect - OTC - Union Station - Naperville Station) Why can't they ply cost-effective buses for these routes? Beats us. Areas like Lemont Road in Homer Glen seem more remote than they actually are, thanks to the pathetic public transport options. Ditto for the Ernest Hemingway Foundation at Oak Park.

Given that Chicago holds a definitive edge over other US cities, thanks largely to its spiritual connect with Swami Vivekananda, the city authorities must strive to make life easier for commuters and tourists alike. We appeal to the Mayor of Chicago: please don't allow the public transit system reduce Chicago to a Go or No Go decision. We hope the Illinois budget deficit is not the root cause of Chicago's transport woes. We also hope Trump's federal spending cuts won't pose a new hurdle, given that much of what ails the system has little to do with money. It merits a mindset change which money cannot buy.

Notwithstanding its transport woes, we absolutely love Chicago downtown and suburbs. Hope things change for the better in 2018 during our next sojourn...I hope Chicago rises to the occasion for the sake of its awe-inspiring landmarks:

Like the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Fullerton hall where Swami Vivekananda delivered his historic 'Sisters and brothers of America'...

Like the architectural wonder Millennium Park, and the Anish Kapoor-created Bean besides the Jay Pritzker Pavilion, the Crown Fountain, and the Lurie Garden. (The Bean could do with some cleaning and wiping given the countless pairs of hands that dirty it on a daily basis)

Like its bustling Mag Mile, which rose like a Phoenix after the great fire of 1871, or the assortment of stores, retail chains, restaurants, commercial complexes and hotels in the vicinity...

Like the Sky Deck and its incredible history - its transition from Sears Tower to Wills Tower and the awesomely bundled tube design that greets wind and gravity with equal solidity...

Like the Oriental Museum with its Middle East antiquities, Mesopotamian exhibits and the Suq shop...

Like the Smart Museum of Art, brainchild of brother David & Alfred Smart, housing the Medicine Buddha, La Sainte Face, Cha Cha Couple and Burning House...

Like the Ed Paschke Art Centre and Memorial Way narrating the wonderful life and judiciously blended Howard Street Studio display. Borrowing Paschke's words for our plea: "Love it or hate it but don't be indifferent to it.”