Tom Alter: Man for All Seasons

Actor, Writer, Journalist, cricket lover, Tom Alter was a man for all seasons.

In September 2017, Tom was diagnosed with Stage IV skin cancer. He died on 29 September in his residence in Bombay (Mumbai). Tom Alter’s son released the final statement saying, “It is with sadness we announce the death of our beloved Tom Alter, actor, writer, director, Padma Shri, and most importantly our loving father!”

No, Tom Alter was not Anglo-Indian. He was the son of American Christian missionaries of English and Scottish ancestry and  lived for years in Mumbai and the Himalayan hill station of Landour.

His grandparents migrated to India from Ohio, United States in November 1916, when they arrived in Madras (now Chennai). From there, they went to Lahore by train, where they settled. His father was born in Sialkot, now in Pakistan.

After the Partition of India, his family too split into two; his grandparents remained in Pakistan while his parents moved to India. After living in Allahabad, Jabalpur and Saharanpur, they finally settled in Rajpur, Uttar Pradesh, a small town located between Dehradun and Mussoorie (in present-day Uttarakhand) in 1954. His elder sister, Martha Chen, has a PhD in South Asian Studies from University of Pennsylvania and teaches at Harvard University. His brother John is a poet and a teacher.

Alter married Carol Evans in 1977. They have two children together: son Jamie and daughter Afshaan. Jamie has worked as a cricket writer for ESPNcricinfo and CricBuzz, and is currently the sports editor of The Times of India. As a cricket enthusiast himself, Tom wrote columns for newspapers and journals for over ten years. He also worked as a journalist during the time and was the first to video interview Indian cricketer Sachin Tendulkar in 1988.

Alter was a life member of International Film And Television Club & International Film And Television Research Centre of Asian Academy of Film & Television. Alter’s first cousin Stephen, also born and raised in India, is an author and teacher. Both are graduates of Woodstock School, Mussoorie.

 

He has occasionally been referred to as the “Blue-eyed saheb with impeccable Hindi. He was educated in Mussoorie’s Woodstock School. His father taught history and English at the Christian college (E.C.C), Allahabad, and thereafter taught at a seminary in Saharanpur. In 1954, his parents started an ashram in Rajpur, called “Massihi Dhyaan Kendra” and they settled there. People of all religions came there for studies and discussions. They would initially recite biblical studies in Urdu and subsequently in Hindi (when Hindi was adopted in 1962).

At 18, Alter left for the US for higher education and studied at Yale for a year. However, he did not like the rigor of the studies at Yale and returned after a year. At the age of 19, Alter obtained work as a teacher, at St. Thomas School, Jagadhri, in Haryana. He worked here for six months, simultaneously coaching his students in cricket. Over the next two and a half years, Alter worked several jobs, teaching for a while at Woodstock School, Mussoorie, and working at a hospital in the US, and returning to India before continuing to work at Jagadhri. At Jagadhri, he began to watch Hindi films.]

It was during this time that he saw the Hindi film Aradhana, a film that he and his friends liked so much that they saw it thrice in a week’s time. This viewing marked a turning point in Alter’s life and watching Rajesh Khanna’s and Sharmila Tagore’s acting attracted young Alter to films. He contemplated pursuing an acting career and mulled over this thought for two years, after which he headed to Film and Television Institute of India in Pune, where he studied acting from 1972 to 1974 under Roshan Taneja.

Alter acknowledged, in a 2009 interview, “I still dream of being 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.”

In another interview, he said, “There was something very warm about Jagadhri. I remained a teacher there until the day I watched Rajesh Khanna romance Sharmila in Aradhana. That was the beginning of my addiction to the cinema.”

He credited his accomplishments in acting to the two years at FTII, Roshan Taneja’s teaching there and interactions with other students including Naseeruddin Shah, Benjamin Gilani and Shabana Azmi.

Alter has written books including The Longest Race, Rerun at Rialto, and The Best in the World. He was also a sports journalist with a special interest in cricket, a game on which he has written extensively in publications such as Sportsweek, Outlook, Cricket Talk, Sunday Observer and Debonair.

He played cricket for a film industry team MCC (Match Cut Club), which includes Naseeruddin Shah, Satish Shah, Vishal Bhardwaj, Aamir Khan, Nana Patekar, Bhupinder Singh and Amarinder Sangha. He also wrote on cricket in Indian publications. In 1996, he was invited by friend Siraj Syed to Singapore, to do cricket commentary in Hindi, for Indian viewers, on the sports TV channel, ESPN.

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