As a young man growing up in Mussourie, Tom Alter used to take the night bus to go to Delhi and catch the latest Hindi releases. Rajesh Khanna was his idol and he joined the Film and Television Institute, "Because I wanted to be Rajesh Khanna, I still do." The Hindi film industry, wary (then more than now) of anyone who did not look like their idea of a "hero", did grudgingly make way for the blue-eyed "gora" - though that is not the label Tom Alter is happy about. He sees himself as Indian and is exasperated when people still express surprise at his excellent Hindi and Urdu. For years he got to play White characters, till filmmakers like Raj Kapoor (Ram Teri Ganga Maili), Mukul Anand (Sultanat) and Vidhu Vinod Chopra (Parinda) created Indian characters for the exceptionally talented actor. In a career spanning about 31 years, the actor, sports writer and novelist, has played a wide variety of characters-the latest being the doctor in Bheja Fry. But he is excited about the films to come....
You are seen less in films and more on stage these days...
Because the roles in films and television are not as exciting. The response to Bheja Fry took me by surprise, even though I had a small part. The reason for doing it was that it had an excellent script. Now after a long time, I am happy about three films that I have shot for.
What is your up-coming films?
One is a film called Cycle Kick produced by Subhash Ghai and directed by Shashi Silgudia, which is about football and I play a coach. The second is a children's film called Foto by Virendra Saini, which is really beautiful. It is about a shy boy in Ranikhet, whose life is transformed when a film unit comes to shoot there. I play the local librarian who is a film fanatic and triggers interest in cinema in the boy. The third is Shadows by Rajesh Shera, set in the Andaman Islands and its about the effect of the Tsunami on one man who runs a school there. They are all made with very little money but are very beautiful and have a vision. At my age, I'd love to make money, but to be satisfied is more important.
Were you tired of the Mr John kind of characters you were offered in the early days?
You know, I didn't play too many of those. In my first film Charas, I played an Interpol officer and Dharmendra's boss, which was a positive character. As a 'White' actor-though the colour of my skin was never an issue for me-the people I got to work with and the roles I did were phenomenal. I worked with directors like Satyajit Ray, Raj Kapoor, Manmohan Desai, Shyam Benegal, Chetan Anand....
Which was the first film in which you played an Indian character?
Sultanat, in which I played the Sultan. Raj Kapoor cast me in Ram Teri Ganga Maili, and not once did the great man bring up the issue of my skin. A lot of people were not willing to break the mould, but then for me, a good role is a good role, whether I play an Indian or a White part.
Producers are known to have said things like Rajesh Khanna looked like a 'gurkhai or that Amitabh Bachchan was too lanky... it's not you, its how others look at you.
You have to be sure of your own identity; it's about what you think of yourself. I have always felt at home here. Some industry people write my lines in English, because they still think I can't read Devnagri, these are trivial misconceptions. People are surprised to know that I have an Indian passport and that I have to get a visa to go the US, like everybody else! I remember some years ago a journalist did a long interview with me over three days, and the headline read "The American Who Speaks Urdu." Don't they realize I am not American! Now I do get upset sometimes if people ask how I speak such good Hindi.
You are a writer too, have you thought of writing your own scripts?
I have many, and I do want to get into film direction.
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