Tom Alter, to some extent, must bear partial responsibility for the way my life has turned out. This passion for Hindi film music, especially the voices of Kishore Kumar and Mohammed Rafi, are as deeply embedded in my soul as that for Bob Dylan. This idea that somehow my destiny is to be a gora Hindustani. This pagalpan that time can be freeze-framed around 1971, and that this moment constitutes the golden era of Hindi cinema. My faltering attempts to recite the shairi of Ghalib with the same effortless fluency with which I heard Tom regale the ladies at a function 30 years ago in some historic Delhi churchyard.

After turning his back on an Ivy League education, Tom returned to our school (Woodstock, in Mussoorie) as a sort of teacher-cum-mentor-cum-co-conspirator just as I was entering high school. He had not been away that many years, and so we welcomed him back as we would have an older brother. In a short period of time, Tom was at the centre of a group of teachers (Bill Shyrock the dramatist, Brij Lal our Hindi teacher and cricket coach, Ajay Mark, Sunder Singh, the manager of the hostel’s kitchen) that had the difficult job of enforcing a regime of discipline they themselves didn’t believe in or adhere to (at least once we were all tucked away for the night).

In the early ‘70s, Tom was an avid buff of Hindi films. (One day he simply disappeared and when he returned, he entertained us with how he had secured his entrance into the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune.) I too was developing a taste for Hindi movies in the dreary cinema halls of Mussoorie and took psychological courage from the fact that Tom, a respected elder in my world, heartily approved of such enjoyments. But I had not yet learned to like the film music, much preferring Creedence, Santana, Gordon Lightfoot and The Beatles, another obsession of Tom sahib’s. (He once organised a weekend-long dance party at school that played nothing but Beatles music.)

One monsoon evening, Tom organised a get-together for us boys in one of the dormitory games rooms. One episode from that evening seared itself into my memory. Tom, combining his flair for drama and love of music, did a skit from Padosan and made fun of several of his peers by acting out the hit ‘Mere Samne Wale Khidki Mein.’ For years, this was the only Hindi film song with which I could claim any familiarity. It was also the exact moment that the seed of Kishore’s voice was planted in my (sub) consciousness.

I recently got a few emailed moments with a very busy Tom and put a simple question to him: What are your top ten favorite Hindi film songs? The following list, a couple of which are fresh to me, is recommended to you from, as Tom said, “the top of my head and the bottom of my heart”.

Kahin Door Jab Din Dhal Jaaye
Mukesh (Anand)


It should be no surprise that Rajesh Khanna is Tom’s favorite actor, given his dominance in those critical years of the late ‘60s-’70s. Once he made his way onto the sets himself, Tom had the opportunity to spend significant time with Mukesh, whose voice, he says, represents, ‘the first hint of evening’. An assessment confirmed beautifully by this melancholy selection.

Duniya Banane Wale
Mukesh (Teesri Kasam)


The musical alter ego of Raj Kapoor gives voice to one of the great movie characters, Hiraman, the cart driver in this wonderful love story set in the environment of rural nautanki theatre. Waheeda Rehman was a much loved favorite of Tom’s, though he did confess once that it was Sharmila Tagore who was “75% responsible” for him taking a chance on an acting career.

Yeh Duniya Yeh Mehfil
Mohammed Rafi (Heer Ranjha)


If Mukesh’s voice represented dusk according to Tom, it is Rafi’s voice that expresses “the early morning”. Every once in a while, iconic stories like Heer Ranjha when adapted for the screen also produce iconic songs. This is true in this case: Rafi in full glory.

Woh Shaam Kuch Ajeeb Thi
Kishore Kumar (Khamoshi)


Another Rajesh Khanna vehicle with Waheeda Rahman from 1969. Kishore puts in a restrained performance on this song composed by Hemant Kumar with lyrics by Gulzar. Talk about a dream team! Clearly, Tom has taste. When asked if he keeps up with contemporary film music, he admits, “I‘ve lost track of contemporary film music, not that it’s not good. But it is Bollywood.”

Zindagi Ek Safar Hai Suhana
Kishore Kumar (Andaz)


In Tom’s solar system, the noon day sun is represented by Kishore Kumar and this bright upbeat number from 1971’s Andaz is the perfect exhibit of that assessment. Yodelling with ease and very nearly bursting with joy, Kishore turns in a show-stopping, foot-stomping performance.

Mere Sapnon Ki Rani
Kishore Kumar (Aradhana)


Like the previous clip, ‘Mere Sapanon ki Rani’ will forever be identified as one of Rajesh/Kishore’s all time greats.

Yeh Jo Mohabbat Hai
Kishore Kumar (Kati Patang)


With art imitating (perhaps dictating by this point) life, Rajesh Khanna plays a drunken and besotted lover who is somehow still coherent enough to sing beautifully to his dearest. Elaborating on his lack of interest in contemporary film music, Tom confessed, “For me, the music died when Kishore did in ‘87. I have nothing to do with Bollywood. We work in the Hindi film industry!”

Sachai Chup Nahi Sakti
Kishore Kumar (Dushman)


This is a new one for me but a real delight. Rajesh sports a moustache and hams it up with a tawaaif. A feeling of amateur theatrics comes through in this clip and for us, Tom’s juniors, who watched him act and even try his hand at singing on stage at Woodstock, it is easy to see why and how he connected with this song and scene. Over the top fun.

Rangeela Re
Lata Mangeshkar (Prem Pujari)


“The films came first,” Tom told me, “then the music.” Acting, not singing, was and remains Tom’s passion. At Woodstock, the culture was heavily American but a number of Hindi heroes, including Dev Anand, sent their children to the school. Though Tom has always credited a husband and wife team, the Brownes, who for years produced and directed all the student plays, with nurturing his love of acting, it probably didn’t hurt to know that with someone like Dev Anand so accessible (theoretically, if not actually), making it in Bombay didn’t have to be a far-fetched fantasy.

Aaj Phir Jeene ki Tamanna Hai
Lata Mangeshkar (Guide)


Waheeda Rahman, yet again. Come on Tom sahib! What’s all this about Sharmila Tagore? I think in our next conversation, we will have to explore your (not so) secret crush on Ms Rahman.