Tom Alter had many trysts with history on stage and in film. He played poet Mirza Ghalib with a mesmerising intensity. His Maulana Azad and Sahir Ludhianvi were complex men, with layers upon layers. To become Rabindranath Tagore, he wore a white flowy beard, and as exiled Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, he embodied a catatonic melancholy.
The thespian, director, writer and Padma Shri recipient died of cancer on September 29, 2017. To mark his second death anniversary, one of his most popular plays, Sons of Babur – written by Salman Khurshid, adapted by Ather Farouqui and directed by M Sayeed Alam – is being screened at New Delhi’s Shri Ram Centre on Sunday afternoon. Alter did all 51 shows of the play and even produced the last two shows in Mumbai in March 2017.
In an interview with Scroll.in, M Sayeed Alam, the founder of Pierrot’s Troupe who knew the actor for two decades, talks about Alter’s commitment to his craft, his friendship and his beliefs. Edited excerpts:
What was the first show of Babur Ki Aulad (Sons of Babur) like?
The play was premiered on October 10, 2010, at FICCI auditorium in New Delhi. It was a packed house. We were apprehensive that the audience would not accept an ordinary-looking extraordinary actor Tom Alter as Bahadur Shah Zafar in exile. I, as the director, was nervous to the hilt. Tom sahib was his usual self – joking and sipping on his tea. Then, half an hour before the show, he turned serious and he delivered an unparalleled performance.
Please describe your journey with Tom Alter as Zafar.
The last show of this play with Tom Alter on stage in flesh and blood was in March 2017 in Mumbai. The show was part of a festival called Jashn-e-Mazi, and was produced by Tom sahib himself. He did almost all of his historical plays – 34 shows of 17 plays. Nine of them were with Pierrot’s Troupe. At that moment, I can say, he had some sort of premonition, which he did not share with all of us. In fact, we tried to discourage him from running 34 shows in two weeks. But he went ahead and did all the shows. Thereafter, he did a few more shows of different plays. He was supposed to perform with us on August 17 and for the first time ever, he could not. And then…
The journey with him, with the self-effacing Salman [Khurshid] and Ather Farouqui has been wonderful. We performed the play across cities. Tom sahib internalised the character absolutely brilliantly. His training in acting and his command over Urdu and poetry helped him portray a character who was not only a Mughal emperor, but also a poet of great repute, and a wonderful conversationalist.
After Tom Alter, who is taking on the mantle?
Yours truly. I have stepped not only into his shoes, but also his lungi and kurta, which he used to sport while essaying the role of Bahadur Shah Zafar. However, this time, we will bring him back on stage by screening his portion from the video footage of the Mumbai production of the play in March 2017. And I will be back to what I used to do – play Babur/Akbar.
Tom Alter, considered the “Saheb/Gora of Bollywood”, was actually a custodian of Indian diversity. He read, wrote, spoke and even thought in Urdu. But stereotypes trailed him like a shadow. Is there a similarity between the journey of the last Mughal emperor, who was exiled to Rangoon by the British in 1858, and Tom Alter’s personal narrative of an identity struggle?
Your question is the answer. Yes, he did confess to me in a private conversation that he was not used well by the filmwalas [Bollywood filmmakers]. He felt he was more Indian than many Indians. And I realised this bit personally when he essayed the roles of Maulana Azad and Mirza Ghalib in my plays and later Bahadur Shah Zafar.
When you first discussed the idea of casting him as Zafar, what was going on in your mind? Paint a picture of the day you went to him with the script. Did the first narration take place in his Bombay home or in Delhi?
Nothing of this sort happened. I and, more than me, he knew that only he would be able to do justice to this character, given his command over Urdu and poetry. And I do not mean it in the academic sense of the term, but the Urdu spoken by the North Indian elite, peppered with sher-o-shayeri in everyday life.
You spent close to two decades with him, tell us about the man that Tom Alter was off stage.
Unparalleled. Disciplined to the core, he would love to sip cups after cups of tea. He would treat me as boss on stage and like a son off stage. Tom sahib possessed a great sense of humour; we loved his banter and repartees. An expert on Indian sports, he was also fond of baseball but he seldom discussed that obsession with us.
Is it true that such was his love for Urdu that he even read the scripts in Urdu?
Oh, yes. Even I was not aware of this and got the script of Maulana Azad transcribed in Devanagri before taking it to him. He asked for the Urdu one. But most importantly, he would hate to read Hindi and Urdu in Roman. He said, “Ek toh Hindi-Urdu Roman mein likhi hi nahin jaa sakti, doosre, aap logon ko Roman mein Hindi-Urdu likhna bhi nahin aata” (First, Hindi-Urdu cannot be transliterated in Roman, and second, you do not know how to write Hindi-Urdu in Roman). I found him speaking chaste English only with his wife, not even his son and daughter. He would never converse in English with a North Indian-looking gentleman or lady. But this is not to deny the fact that he was a great writer and speaker of English. Once, I saw him writing an article for a reputed journal on my computer, and he did it within an hour. He did not bother to even proofread the piece. His book on 1983 World Cup, The Best in the World, which he co-authored with Ayaz Memon sahib, is the most interesting one on cricket that I have come across.
A scheduled show of Sons of Babur once had to be cancelled in Mumbai because a group raised objections. You have been associated with theatre for so many years. Do you think artistic freedoms are under more threat than even before? How did Tom Alter analyse the situation? How would he have reacted on the Kashmir issue today?
In fact, [a play on] Maulana Azad was also banned in Gujarat once. Tom sahib told the producers to let him perform the play on road but the producers backtracked. He offered to do the same when Sons of Babur was not allowed to be staged on the premises of the [Hare Ram Hare Krishna] mandir. The producers backtracked even then.
Yes, he was not happy with the turn of events after 2014 and spoke fearlessly about them. Freedom of artistic expression is under more threat today. But more than that, it is being re-coursed towards a certain direction. And the protest against it is unfortunately more symbolic than real.
Tom sahib would have opposed the action in and on Kashmir in private and public. After all, he surrendered his American passport as an act of protest against American atrocities in Vietnam.
Zafar and Ghalib shared a unique, bittersweet relationship. Since Tom Alter has played both the characters on stage, how would you relate the era of poetry during the Mughal period to how we treat poets of our times?
Treatment is more or less the same. The pro-establishment ones were rewarded then and are being rewarded now. The rebels were, and are, hardly treated well.
After playing Maulana Azad, Ghalib, Manto, Sahir, Tagore, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Einstein and Gandhi, was there any other character that Tom Alter wanted to play on stage?
Yes, that of Dagh Dehlvi. The script was ready. I remember telling him, “Tom sahib, lekin Dagh sahib bahut kaale aur badsoorat thae” (Tom sahib, but Dagh sahib was very dark and ugly). And he replied, “Badsoorat main hoon hi, kaala tum bana dena; kabhi mere make-up par bhi toh kuch kharch karo” (Ugly, I already am, you make me dark; at least, be willing to expend on my make-up this time).
What would you usually see on Tom Alter’s study table?
It was scattered. He would carry Urdu, Hindi and English books with him [during tours], and they would be found strewn all over his study table, coexisting with some of his own notes on stray pieces of paper, mostly written in Urdu… He scribbled many phone numbers here and there because he never owned a mobile phone.
What was his association with Old Delhi like?
He loved Delhi as a whole. He had many rare books in his collection and he wouldn’t really have to visit Daryaganj to procure them. In fact, he gave me a rare book on Allama Iqbal, which I did not return despite his many reminders. The book helped me write a no less rare play on Sir Iqbal. Unfortunately, he could not see that production.
It is often said that one man who could have rivalled Tom’s impeccable Urdu had he been alive was another blue-eyed man called William Fraser, the man who had helped Ghalib get a pension during colonial rule. How do you see this comparison?
It’s wrong. In fact, during the rehearsals of plays like Raja Nahar Singh and Ghalib, where we used to imitate “Angrezi Urdu”, Tom sahib told us that during the later Mughal period, the British were trained to speak Urdu and Hindi just as the Indians did. So were the missionaries.
What would you remember about Tom Alter most? And if you could dedicate a sher, which one would it be?
His sense of humour, his humility, and his sportsmanship.
Koocha-e shauq, rah-e fikr-o-nazar se guzre
Naqsh-e pa chhor gaye hum toh jidhar se guzre…
The writer is Editor of TERI Press. She tweets at @ipshita77.