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Tom Alter (1950-2017): A man who lived many lives in one

The Padma Shri recipient and thespian passed away after a long struggle with skin cancer on 29 September 2017.

Shriram Iyengar

To describe Padma Shri Tom Alter as an actor would be a grave injustice. While acting was his chosen profession, Alter was truly a Renaissance man. With his supreme command of languages and diction and a keen understanding of the world, Alter was a rare combination of knowledge, wisdom and charm. His death, at the age of 67, is an irreparable loss to the world of theatre, and to the Hindustani language.

Alter was born Thomas Beach Alter on 22 June 1950 to a family of Christian missionaries in Mussoorie. With Scottish and American lineage, the actor spent a nomadic childhood living in Mussoorie, Allahabad, Jabalpur, Saharanpur and Rajpur in the North of India.

His love for language and education stemmed from his parents. His father, a teacher of History and English, also inculcated in the young Tom a love for the language of Urdu, one that was to become a passion in his later years. Tom would often join his parents in reciting the biblical texts in Urdu and Hindi. 

Alter's education began at the Woodstock School in Landor, which led him to a stint at the prestigious Yale University in America. However, the actor's childhood interest in sports and cinema was strong enough to drag him away from education to try and pursue a career on the big screen. As he later said in an interview, "As the youngest child, I did have some freedom to choose my own path." 

Having watched the blockbuster Aradhana (1969), starring Rajesh Khanna and Sharmila Tagore, during his years as a teacher in a small town in Haryana, Tom Alter decided to jump full-time into acting and enrolled at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). That was where he met two individuals who were to become his closest friends, Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani. The trio together put up Motley Productions in 1977, staging plays such as Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot. Alter went on to rival Naseeruddin Shah by playing Ghalib on stage in the play Ghalib in Delhi. 

Throughout a 40-year career, Alter was often typecast as the 'foreign' guy in Hindi cinema. He began his stint in films with Charas (1976) where he played boss to Dharmendra. It earned him a reputation in Haryana and Punjab, where Dharmendra was a big star.

He later played the Urdu poetry-quoting Captain Weston, opposite Richard Attenborough, in Satyajit Ray's Shatranj Ke Khilari (1977), and Lord Mountbatten in Shyam Benegal's Sardar (1993). One of his more famous appearances in foreign films was with the great Peter O'Toole in One Night With The King (2006), where he played the biblical king Saul. 

Like many Indians, Alter shared a passionate love for the game of cricket. As a young man, he represented Mussoorie in intra-state tournaments and also wrote for several reputed journals such as Outlook, The Sunday Observer and Sportsweek

One of his most famous interviews was with a young prodigy setting the Mumbai cricket scene alight in the 1980s. The interview with the 15-year-old boy named Sachin Tendulkar would be one of Tom Alter's eternal contributions to the game of cricket. That was the first time the teenage cricketer was interviewed on video.

While he played a vital part in films such as Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), Parinda (1989), Junoon (1992) and, more recently, Bheja Fry (2007), the actor remained a sidelined talent. It was on stage that his diction, style, and presence truly flourished. From playing Maulana Abul Kalam Azad to Ghalib, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein, he displayed a verve and talent that is known only to those who have had the pleasure of witnessing it.

As someone who once 'wanted to be like Rajesh Khanna', Tom Alter would never be called a star. But to those who have witnessed him recite poetry in Urdu, or play Ghalib, the loss is just as great.