(The following piece is being republished to mark actor and writer Tom Alter’s death on 30 September 2017 at the age of 67. It was originally published on 14 July 2017.)
There are artists who take time to understand new media – sometimes even resist it. And then, there is Sir Tom Alter.
As I watch him perform a scene for an upcoming short film outdoors, under the May sun, I can’t help but wonder at how passionate the 67-year-old is. Right on time for the shoot, even when the rest of the cast trickles in much later, Alter is professionalism personified.
He has done five short films in the last six months.
A lot of young people are making short films now. They choose unique subjects and I love the scripts and stories that are coming my way.
Contrary to popular belief that short films are like ‘popcorn’ to full length movies, he says,
Each minute of a short film is more significant than that of a full length feature film. You have to put in more finesse in each shot. Also, one can let go of minor things in a longer film, but here you must pay attention to every detail.
Bhargav Saikia, filmmaker and founder, Lorien Motion Pictures, recently cast Alter and Shernaz Patel in his short film, The Black Cat, based on Ruskin Bond’s short story by the same name.
Ruskin Bond generously gave me the permission to adapt his story and Tom Alter, Bond’s real life friend, was the natural choice to essay the author’s character. Alter’s meticulously detailed and entertaining performance is one of the major highlights of the film.
Saikia, incidentally, made the critically acclaimed Kaafiron Ki Namaaz. Here’s a link to the film:
He fondly remembers the moment when Alter called Ruskin Bond on his mobile phone on the first day of shoot in Bhimtal.
Mr Alter wanted to hum a few songs in the film which were Ruskin Bond’s favourites, and they spoke about those songs over the phone.
2017 has been a dream run for the theatre veteran. He was able to realise Jashn-e-Maazi, a theatre extravaganza he had been creating for over 10 years.
It had been my dream for a decade. The idea was to cover history through events and personalities that have impacted the world. The 17 days of the festival was pure bliss – we began with Mahabharata and ended with Gandhiji.
A particularly interesting play was Dozakhnama, based on a Bengali novel of the same name, where Ghalib and Manto talk to each other from beyond the grave. While one hopes there were more numbers in the audience, Alter says he had the best team of people working behind the scenes and on stage for his dream project.
A recent play, one third of which he performed in Jashn-e-Maazi, was met with resounding success in Delhi. Based on the life of the late psychoanalyst Wilfred Bion, The Becoming Room sees Alter enact both Bion and his father’s role.
It’s a challenging script because you get the chance to see a great mind think and talk about the 20th century.
Millennials and Technology in the World of Theatre
Working through the years that have seen massive transformation in terms of technology, has any of it come in the way of acting for a senior actor like him? He says ‘no’ quite simply.
I still don’t carry a phone. I don’t know how marketing and the internet works in terms of short films. For actors, I think nothing has changed. We act.
As we discuss millennials and their equation with theatre, Alter sounds most positive.
At Jashn-e-Maazi and at the plays I do, more than half of the audience is young. Theatre lovers come in all ages. Truth be told, they never really quit watching it.
He also refutes that the language of Urdu – his forever muse – is not finding takers. The legendary artist puts it in words that may have sounded even more romantic in the language itself:
Urdu is not dying and if it is, I would love to have such a magnificent death.