The many moods of Tom Alter

Anjali Jhangiani
Saturday, 15 July 2017

You need hard work and luck to make it big in the film industry. Only hard work or only luck will not do, you need a healthy combination of both,” says Tom Alter, who was in the city for a programme at The Flour Works on Thursday. Presenting a compilation of scene from some of the iconic films he has been a part of, and plays that he has acted in, he shared some interesting anecdotes about the defining experiences he has had in his career.

You need hard work and luck to make it big in the film industry. Only hard work or only luck will not do, you need a healthy combination of both,” says Tom Alter, who was in the city for a programme at The Flour Works on Thursday. Presenting a compilation of scene from some of the iconic films he has been a part of, and plays that he has acted in, he shared some interesting anecdotes about the defining experiences he has had in his career.

Remembering the time he first saw the legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray, he says, “He said the most amazing thing in his speech at FTII — ‘I make films for myself, fortunately some other people like them.’ What a statement! He was a tremendous personality, over six feet tall. He saw me at the institute and when he walked by me, he looked down and said to me, ‘Tom, we will work together soon.’ We had never met before. He didn’t even stop, just kept walking. Sometimes when we really want something, we imagine it. I thought he said it when he actually never had. One and a half years later, I got a call to come and meet somebody called Manik da for a film. I went, and there he was! He told me ‘Tom, remember I told you that day?’ and sure enough I got a chance to work with him in Shatranj Ke Khiladi in 1977, I was just three years out of FTII.”

The film was based on Munshi Premchand’s short story of the same title. It is set in the uprising of 1857, when the British were taking over Lucknow. Richard Attenborough was General James Outram and Tom was his aide de camp, Captain Weston.

Talking about a scene where he recites Urdu poetry for Outram, Tom says, “When I was reading the script, the line dhokha hai aasma ka mere rubar par sparked a discussion between two very learned people — Shama Zaidi and Javed Siddiqui. They were of the opinion that it should be dhokha hai aasma ko instead of dhokha hai aasma ka. Till this dispute was sorted, the shoot was held up. There was no internet in those days, no Google, no cellphones. So both of them found a landline, Shama called someone in Delhi and Javed called someone in Mumbai and after two or three hours, they came to a conclusion that dhokha hai aasma ka is correct and the scene was shot that way.”

He feels that working with Satyajit Ray was an experience of a lifetime. Describing Ray’s multitasking skills, Tom says, “Manik da wrote the script, handled the camera, and did everything himself. He left nothing for his four assistants to do. So the first assistant came to me and said, ‘Tom da, don’t be nerbhous (nervous, as the Bengalis tend to phonetically replace their Vs with Bs), you are working with a great cinema and art director’, I said okay, I won’t be. Then the second one came by and said, ‘Tom da, ki khobor? (what’s the news?) Don’t be nerbhous.’ The same thing was followed by the third and by the time the fourth assistant came to me, I told him that if one more person comes and tells me not to be nerbhous, then I will be so nerbhous that I will not be able to give the shot!”

Tom is most remembered for his role of a British officer in Manoj Kumar’s Kranti. “I have acted in over 100 films and I am hated for playing the villainous British officer till date,” he moans.

Producers in Bollywood
Talking about one scene from Shatranj Ke Khiladi, which Manik da had given them only two days to shoot, and wrapped it up on the second day, Tom says, “The producer of this film was stunned at the efficient work. I was being paid an x amount of money per day, which was next to nothing. And for the second day, when we packed up early, I was paid half of the ‘next to nothing’. That was one of the first bitter lessons I learnt about the Hindi film producers.”

There were many stingy producers the actor had to deal with in his career, but this recent incident always makes him chuckle. “Mukesh Bhat signed me for Aashiqui which had Rahul Roy and Anu Agarwal in 1990. He told me, ‘You will do wonderfully well as the guy who runs the hostel where Anu stays, take this 10,000 rupees from me now, and after the movie becomes a hit, you will see how big my heart is’.”

The film went on to be one of the biggest hits of all times and till today I’ve not got another naya paisa from him,” says Tom, adding, “Mukesh then made Aashiqui 2 about four years ago. I met him while the film was on the floors, so I told him that I was happy that he was making this sequel. You won’t believe what he told me! He said, ‘I lost so much money making Aashiqui that I had to make Aashiqui 2 to make up for it.’ He remembered his words to me while signing me on for the first film and was worried I might remember too,” he laughs.

Digital un-reality
The artist does not own a cellphone or any social media accounts. “But I’ll reply to you if you send me an email, and I have a landline at home,” says Tom.

He believes the digital world is encouraging people to be nasty to each other, say whatever they like and not be responsible for the consequences. While some say that is the beauty of social media, he begs to differ. “People should be held accountable for what they say. You should not be able to say whatever you want without considering the consequences, that’s not how life is. Sitting at home, alone, you are commenting and posting all kinds of things, if you really feel that way, you should say what you feel to someone’s face. This is how you must socialise, face to face,” smiles Tom.

Pune is content
He mentions that he came to Pune in 1972, to join the Film and Television Institute of India. “I came here in the monsoon, this weather,” he says looking up at the rain while he sips on a steaming cup of tea and searches through his memories for the things he remembers about his institute days.

“I had a bicycle and a motorbike, and I used to ride around town. The area behind FTII was empty, so I used to go running there. The people of the city were very interested in the arts, drama, sports... The city gave me a reassuring feeling of contentment,” he says.

Born in Missouri, Tom has visited lived and worked (after he graduated from Yale University, US) in many cities across the country including Kolkata, Bhopal, Mumbai and Delhi.

“Delhi is full of gardens, even more than Pune. But you can feel the tension in Delhi now, which has still not reached Pune,” he says, adding, “But Pune has become quite crowded. In the ‘70s, when I would take a cab from Dadar to Pune, I would reach in two and a half hours. Now after building the over 20,000-crore highway, it takes three and a half hours. Where is the progress? Progress is relative,” says Tom, who is grateful that his work took him to so many places, but admits that he is not a traveller and would run home to Missouri at the first chance he gets.

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