BANNERGHATTA ROAD:Actor, author, columnist and passionate aesthete Tom Alter has just arrived at the Indian Institute of Management, Bangalore (IIMB) to deliver a lecture on 'Sports and Arts in Modern India’. If he is tired, it doesn't show for Tom is used to being many things all at once. Over the last few days, he has performed three plays in different venues across India. In one, he played Maulana Azad and in the other, Sahir Ludhianvi.
He is also the author of three books (The Longest Race, Rerun at Rialto, The Best in the World), a sports journalist credited with Sachin Tendulkar's first TV interview and countless astute cricket columns. This child of the 1950s may trace back his ancestry to American Christian missionaries, but he has in his blood the cadences of Urdu poetry, a passion for cricket and cinema and that indivisible something that glues us all together.
The irony that the man who represents all that India stands for is still remembered for playing an evil 'gora saab' in Manoj Kumar's Kranti is obvious to him. He smiles. “Journalists who do not do their research define me as this or that.” The fact is that the young man who was drawn to Indian cinema during a short teaching stint in Jagadhari, Haryana, when he saw Rajesh Khanna romancing Sharmila Tagore in Aradhana, has travelled way beyond his wildest dreams today. In a chat with City Express, he recounts his journey, his anger at the way politics is interfering with the arts and much more. Excerpts:
On his roots
I have no clue at all how I ended up doing so many things. It had a lot to do with my upbringing, my grandparents and parents (American Presbyterian missionaries), schooling (at Woodstock School, Landour, Mussoorie, Uttarakhand) and siblings (his elder sister Martha Chen has a PhD in South Asian Studies and his brother John is a poet and teacher). I was surrounded by people who had a high level of interest in arts, philosophy, music, history and sports. I knew I had to meet really high standards of excellence. I was born in the 50s when India’s poets, statesmen were alive to new possibilities, hopeful and tremendously motivated to do something extraordinary. When I play Maulana or Sahir, I am not representing that time, I am that time.
On playing Sahir
I did not meet Sahir saab though I was lucky to meet legends like Kaifi saab, Majrooh Sultanpuri and Ali Sardar Jafri. Playing Sahir is tremendously enriching. The play (Parchhaiyan) is about a man talking to his 20-year-old self, and we revisit Sahir’s poetry. Even his simplest songs cut to the bone. In no language have I heard a sentiment similar to the one expressed in ‘Chalo ik baar phir se ajnabi ban jayein hum dono’ (Come, let us be strangers once again). How extraordinary that he said about the Taj, “Ek shahenshah ne daulat ka sahara lekar hum gareebon ke mohabbat ka udaya hai mazak” (An emperor has used his pelf to mock the passion of the poor). What a vision he had to be able to foretell that the kharaash (injury) Partition has left on our heart will never heal and we will always have guns facing each other on either side of the border.
When I did a play on Saigal, there were no reference points because he was Indian cinema’s first singing superstar. You cannot compare him to anyone. Times have changed and stars are much more accessible today unlike a Raj Kapoor or Dilip Kumar who never did a TV commercial. Rajesh Khanna did one commercial. Today, you can see an entire film on your mobile phone but I remember being star-struck when I saw Aradhana's villain Manmohan in Connaught Place! I was also lucky to have worked with legends like Raj Kapoor, Manoj Kumar, V Shantaram and Subhash Ghai. In recent times, I have loved Masaan, Gour Hari Daastan, Kaun Kitne Pani Mein and more. Great work is still being done though we have spread the magic thin.
On the current intolerance towards dissent: Recently, I was in Baroda with a play written by Syed Asghar Wajahat. It is called Yadi... and it imagines what would have happened if Gandhi had lived. He would have, the play imagines, met Godse in jail and asked, “Why did you want me dead?” We were not able to sell more than 30 tickets and had to cancel the show. Imagine, a play about Gandhi has no takers today in Gujarat. Gandhi’s spectacles though have been used to spur the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. This was an 80-year-old man who was killed by a right-wing ideologist while going to a prayer meeting where all faiths were represented. Who killed him? Not the British. Not the Pakistanis. Us. And we are still doing this. Nipping dissent in the bud. Silencing people.
Look at what is happening at the Film and Television Institute of India, which has produced 200 national award winners over the last 50 years. For three months, there have been no classes and young students are on a hunger strike. But our PM has said nothing, possibly because FTII was a Nehruvian dream. This is not the first time a politician has kept mum. Narsimha Rao said nothing after the fall of Babri Masjid.
Gandhi refused to be PM because he was a leader, not a politician. And yet, how much time was he able to spend in independent India? Five-and-a-half months! We need to introspect and seek forgiveness for this because unless we do, we will keep repeating the same errors. But I have hope. Politics is about winning over minds and minds are fickle. When you win hearts like Gandhi did, your legacy survives. We have done a lot right and many wrongs but we will go on. I am waiting for a leader who can win our hearts.