Rajpur awaits the return of its son

Rajpur awaits the return of its son

TOM Alter told Anupma Khanna about his difficult experience the first time he got skin cancer and how he had not stopped acting even when he was sick, except skipping one play in Delhi

It was in June1950 that a handsome blue-eyed boy was born in the hills of Mussoorie, with golden hair, an American descent and a truly Indian heart. The boy grew up to love dearly the Queen of Hills, and this romance with the mountains has lived on even decades after the boy shifted to Mumbai to shine as one of the greatest actors in the country – Tom Alter.

Today, as Alter battles advanced cancer there are thoughts galore that come to the mind about the artist admired as much for his humility as for his talent. Even during his last visit to Dehradun in June for a book launch, Alter had spoken fondly of his deep love for Rajpur and Mussoorie, quipping that a poet needs the mountains to write a wonderful verse. At that gathering, Alter had regaled the audience with his impressive spontaneous recitations of fine Urdu shayari. And the enthusiastic welcome he had received from people in Doon had shown yet again that Alter continues to be a favourite hero in his native town.

A lot of this fan following is also credited to how unaffected by the glamour of Bollywood or fame, Alter is still the compassionate, down-to-earth, Hindustani-loving gentleman from Mussoorie, who rises tall in his simplicity and talent. But during this visit, little did the artist know that he would have to fight the cancer again, and this time the battle will be more difficult. In an exclusive conversation with this reporter a short while before his cancer relapse was diagnosed, Alter  told us about his difficult experience the first time he got skin cancer and how he had not stopped acting even when he was sick, except for the episode when he had become too ill to perform in the play on KL Saigal in Delhi. Alter had to get the thumb of his right hand amputated due to the cancer, a setback he had taken in his stride, seen as he was signing autographs for fans in Doon with his left hand, his grace towering over the difficulty of using the “wrong-hand.”

Untouched by elitism, Alter belongs to the rare breed of celebrities who still prefer regular train travel than expensive flights simply because it makes more sense. “It is a whole lot more convenient to catch the Shatabdi or the night train to Doon than waste time travelling to and from the airports,” he had said without pretence.

Perhaps Alter, while in a hospital in Mumbai, must be yearning to be in the salubrious climes and beauty of Mussoorie. As he had told The Pioneer some time ago, “I miss Rajpur so much. In winter we used to come down from Woodstock for a break. In those days, it used to be for three long and wonderful months. I remember, on coming home, I would make a round of the entire compound and see, feel and sense what had changed and what had not — shadows, gravel, leaves, trees, ruined buildings, grass, flowers; I used to spend a whole day doing this. One winter I had a horse and I rode it everywhere, including to Mussoorie; how I enjoyed. Also, tennis at Doon club, movies at Capri and Odeon, hamburgers at Kwality, church at Morrison Memorial, trips from the station, cycling to Lachhiwala and Kansrao, Herbertpur and Rampur Mandi; fishing in the Tsong and the Ganga, trips and long stays at Satyanarayan forest bungalow, the bells of Rajpur; winter evenings come on so suddenly.” Until a few years ago, he used to come to Dehradun every year to play with much delight a cricket match with locals.

In his teens, Alter had got admission in the coveted Yale University. However his heart was in India and he returned. He taught at St Thomas School in Jagadhari (Haryana) before taking to films, coaching students cricket at the school. There was a very warm camaraderie in Jagadhari and Alter served as a teacher there until the day he watched Rajesh Khanna romance Sharmila in Aaradhna. That was the beginning of his fascination with cinema. And even now, Alter continues to be a big fan of Rajesh Khanna. “My big inspiration to enter films was Rajesh Khanna. For me, in the early 1970s, he was the only hero — romantic to the core, not larger than life, so Indian and real — he was my hero; the reason I came into films and he still is,” he had said in an interview.

With determination and dreams, Alter graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India in Pune in 1974 with a gold medal. In 1977, he, along with Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani, formed a theatre group called Motley Productions. And he has essayed versatile characters in over 250 Hindi films and 50 TV series since then, in addition to being a legend in Indian theatre. Some of his most popular plays continue to have packed houses. He also earned a good reputation as a sports journalist, a glimpse of which was seen recently in the documentary on Sachin Tendulkar that featured Tendulkar being interviewed by Tom Alter.

Among his most cherished moments in life are playing cricket with Sunil Gavaskar, acting with Rajesh Khanna and Peter o’ Toole (who he had idolised ever since he first saw Lawrence Of Arabia as a child; having seen it three times in one week at the age of 13) in the Hollywood movie One Night with the King, receiving the Padma Shri, meeting Sharmila Tagore and the Nawab of Pataudi, captaining the MCC cricket team (film industry team that includes Naseeruddin Shah, Satish Shah, Vishal Bhardwaj, Aamir Khan, Nana Patekar et al); and always hearing the bell from St. George’s College in Mussoorie in the evening.

“God is in understanding and forgiving each other. And religion was formed by people who could not understand or forgive. Terrorists are people; we must understand them, punish them and then forgive them,” Alter had told The Pioneer not long ago. The actor hates religious bigotry.

The author of three books, Alter has kept his love of writing alive and his articles that are often philosophical are original and stirring. One remembers Alter’s favourite piece that he has written,

“Raat mein, darwaaze par dastak hui —

main ne darwaaza khola —

tum nahin thi, tumhaari mahak thi —

dopahar mein darwaaze par dastak hui —

main ne darwaaza khola —

tum thi, tumhaari mahak nahin thi.”

As he puts up a brave fight against his disease, one remembers his profound words, “life is in the hollow of our hands” and wishes him to hold on strong.



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