Since the beginning, Bollywood has always had a dearth of actors playing English characters. Old movies usually depicted them as hateful and punishing colonial wardens, rulers or soldiers. The later ones put them in the shoes of foreign drug lords, manipulating partisans, and giant Goliath-like fighters. It was hard in Bollywood to find enough competent actors to play these English roles (or any white-skinned character for that matter). To ease this constraint, English characters were usually played by an assortment of fair-skinned Indians who shouted words in accented English. Roles in wartime, period or freedom fighting films were sometimes played by Russians who hardly spoke English or any available white male in need of easy money. In extreme cases, Indian actors with waxed noses and blond wigs had to do.
But having an English accent or a face to match it wasn’t an advantage when it came to landing acting jobs in Bollywood. The casting agents and the producers still looked at them playing villains. The English characters occupied this niche because in the two-dimensional narratives they fitted perfectly well. There was only so much an Englishman could do. He was limited to either throw a spanner in the hero’s quest or bare some teeth to get the hero rebel against him.
Too few people cared actually. One should just look the part because eventually, he was going to be put down anyway, by force or by wit. The freedom fighting movies were all about heroes, our heroes, and an English warden with a conscience was just a hindrance to the storytelling. The villainy of these monoliths and inhuman characters were taken for granted. No one repented when they were killed; the whistles screeching through the airy picture halls were feeble compared to the killing of an Indian villain.
Tom Alter entered into Bollywood quietly without fanfare or chiming bells. He dabbled to find his footing in Bollywood, doing smallish roles, till he was cast as Capt. Weston by the Bengali auteur Satyajit Ray in “Shatranj ke Khiladi“. A native of Mussoorie, Alter is, technically, an insider, as much as Kalki Koechlin is or Kipling’s Kim was; but the texture of his skin and blue eyes made him typecast in roles requiring just those traits. Despite having an impeccable Hindi-Urdu diction and nuanced knowledge of India
culture, he was seen as a gora/foreigner for many years. Even to this day, he fights the affliction of this tag so much so that his palpable frustration was apparent in some of his recent interviews.
There is an interesting story about Tom Alter that he gave up teaching to become a full-time actor after watching Rajesh Khanna romancing Sharmila Tagore on-screen in Aradhana. With heady dreams of becoming something like Rajesh Khanna, Alter forayed into Bollywood, acting, first, as standardized English characters in Charas and Des Pardes, and then taking on roles with more depth. He never enjoyed a meteoric rise, not even the kind he hoped for. There were no quick successions of scripts coming in, enabling him to pick and choose. If anything, he was always lurking behind the roles of doctors, governors and odd assortments of special appearances. But then he
quickly became the mainstay of an English character, no matter how little they were required to do.
Between films and to fill in the downtime, Alter pursued his passion for writing, cricket and theater. He has written books such as The Longest Race, Rerun at Rialto and The Best in the world and writes pieces on cricket in tabloids such as Sportsweek, Outlook, Cricket talk and Sunday Observer. His theatrical performances include the William Dalrymple‘s City of Djinns, Maulana in Maulana Azad and a long association with the group called Motley productions with Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani.
He also appears on television, now and then, with notable performances in Shaktiman, Yahan ke Hum Sikandar and Zabaan Sambhalke.
Alter, in his own words, reserves a quiet fascination for historical figures, the latest of which being Mirza Ghalib in Sayeed Alam‘s play.
Image Courtesy: scoopwhoop.com
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