Print this page

Remembering Tom Alter

Volume 14, Issue 3  | 
Published 05/02/2018
Dr Asma Sayed

An academic living in Canada; she researches and writes about South Asian literature and cinema


Padma Shri Tom Alter (Thomas Beach Alter), the outstanding Bollywood actor, passed away, in September 2017, after a long fight with cancer. For Hindi cinema fans, Alter left behind a void difficult to fill.

Born and raised in Mussorie, India, in 1950, Alter was the grandson of American missionaries who had moved to India and settled there for over a century before he was born. Alter was educated in India (Woodstock school) and briefly went to the US to study at Yale. After leaving his studies incomplete, Alter left the US to return home to India to work as a school teacher.

During this time, inspired by Rajesh Khanna’s 1969 film Aaradhna, Alter decided to become an actor. He trained in acting at Pune’s famous Film and Television Institute. However, getting a break in Bollywood was no easy feat; his ‘foreigner’ looks – light skin, blue eyes, blonde hair – were not his greatest asset when trying to get a role. Eventually, given this ‘Western looks’ he played many characters as a British colonialist, or a missionary, or a foreign diplomat. However, he made up British or American accent for these roles. In fact, he was known for his masterly command of Urdu, one of the most poetic languages in South Asia.

Alter worked with some very prominent film directors in India: Satyajit Ray, V

 Shantaram, Subhash Ghai, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Manmohan Desai, and Chetan Anand. He acted in more than three hundred films and dozens of plays. Some of his best performances were in films such as Charas (1976) Shatranj ke Khiladi (1977), Junoon (1978), Kranti (1981), Sardar (1993), Parinda (1989), and Aashiqui (1990). He also acted in multiple-award-winning film, Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982). Although most of his films were in Hindi, Alter also worked in regional films in India, especially in Telugu, Assamese, and Bengali. Alter’s desire to play an Indian man was fulfilled when in 2014 he was offered the role of Maulana Abdul Kalam Azad, one of India’s freedom fighters, in the TV mini-series Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution of India directed by Shyam Benegal.

Until the end of his very active life, Alter also had a prolific stage career. His work in theatre portraying major historical and literary figures such as Mirza Ghalib and Maulana Azad, and his performance in the reproduction of William Dalrymple’s City of Djinns, will be missed by theatre lovers.

Also a sports enthusiast, Alter wrote sports columns for many newspapers. Interestingly, in the 1980s, he was the first to conduct an on-camera interview with the young Sachin Tendulkar, now a living legend cricket star.

Born and raised in India, Alter was often mistaken as a foreigner even after he had worked in film and theatre for four decades; ill-informed journalists would, at times, wonder how he had acquired proficiency in Hindi. This enraged Alter, who was Indian, if not by blood. Having wanted to demonstrate his devotion to a life and career in India, he had renounced his American citizenship in his youth. He received Padma Shri, India’s highest civilian order, for his contributions to arts, in 2008.

Alter won the hearts of millions in India. He will be dearly missed by cinema lovers in India and globally.

Last modified on Monday, 05 February 2018 01:08