Unfinished Endings: Remembering The Iconic Tom Alter

Unfinished Endings: Remembering The Iconic Tom Alter
The youngest of three siblings, Tom Alter, was born on June 22, 1950, in the hill station of Mussoorie, in the northwest state of Uttarakhand, India. The blue-eyed baby grew up to be one of India’s greatest character actors, his white American-origin exterior hardly reflecting his soul and his inner fabric.

Tom was a true Indian through and through and considered himself a pakka Indian until his last breath, refusing to let his appearance define him. He remained unaltered in more ways than one and could set the stage on fire single-handedly. For a white lad to conquer Bollywood required an indomitable spirit, superior language and acting skills. Tom had it all and used everything he possessed to make an impact.

Tom Alter in the US circa 1958

Tom Alter’s grandparents, missionaries of the Presbyterian church from Ohio, had been in India since 1916 when they landed in Madras (now Chennai) that November before making their way by train to Lahore. Their son James, Tom’s father, was born in Sialkot. James married Barbara in 1944 in Mussoorie.

The Partition of 1947 turned out to be a painful separation for the Alter family. Tom’s grandparents decided to remain in Pakistan while his parents relocated to India, settling down in Mussoorie. That is where five generations of Alters have grown up.

Alter Sr. taught English and history at Gordon College Rawalpindi. He died at home of a heart attack in 1952. Tom’s grandmother continued to live in Pakistan, holding that conditions there were far better overall than across the border.

Tom attended Woodstock School in Mussoorie, his parents playing an influential role in transforming it from a missionary institution to an international school of repute. As a young man, Tom started teaching English at a Haryana school and was a good enough cricketer to also coach cricket to teenagers.

On a hike in Tehri Garhwal, Uttarakhand

Many people experience life-changing incidents, but few shape their lives impacted by a single film. After Aradhana was released in 1969, Rajesh Khanna seemed to have cast a spell on the nation. On Tom the impact was intense enough to get him headed to Mumbai to follow his dream of becoming a Rajesh Khanna II.

Shortly after, in 1972, he was enrolled at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, graduating in the 1974 batch as a gold medalist. Class fellows included Shabana Azmi, Benjamin Gilani and Naseeruddin Shah.


Fluent in classic English and chaste Urdu, Tom was an instant hit in Bollywood. After his debut film Charas released in 1976, he became a natural choice for roles in period films or scripts with international smugglers or drug dealers. Ram Bharose, Kranti, Shatranj ke Khiladi, Parvarish, Gandhi and Kudrat followed soon. His role with his idol Rajesh Khanna in Naukri was well received and Hum Kisi Se Kam Nahin was another hit.

Tom on his festooned horse at his wedding reception

In the biopic Sardar, Tom stunned audiences with his role as Lord Mountbatten. There were other interesting scripts too. However, these roles were not enough for his blazing talent and his huge appetite for acting and drama. It wasn’t long before Hollywood noticed him, picking him up for several features and art films. He also did several Indian TV serials.

Tom also started to write, his special interest in cricket taking him to serious journalism, becoming a television host and even occasionally dabbling in cricket commentary. But it was in theatre and stage where he made the greatest impact.

In 1977, along with Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani, Tom formed a theatre group called Motley Productions. Their first play was Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, staged at Mumbai's Prithvi Theatre in July 1979. Over the years, he continued to perform at Prithvi Theatre, enthralling audiences. His adaptation of Muhammad Basheer’s My Grandad had an Elephant on 7 June 2011 deserves special mention.

Tom also worked with the New Delhi theatre group Pierrot’s Troupe. Besides his memorable title role of Ghalib, he was the lead actor in “Once Upon A Time”, a collection of five short stories presented as vignettes, directed by Sujata Soni Bali, co-starring prominent stage actor and TV personality Sunit Tandon. It was last staged in Mumbai on 17 June 2017. He acted the part of poet Sahir Ludhianvi in another play, Parchaiyyan performed for school children in Delhi, 2014.

Tom in 2010

My personal favourite is his solo play Maulana, based on Maulana Azad, that he scripted, and received much critical acclaim for. I consider myself fortunate to have seen it performed live at Harvard University in May 2008.

I could never decide whether his English was more captivating or his Urdu. It’s not just about his delivery for films or on stage. I cannot think of anyone of Western descent who spoke conversational Urdu as beautifully as Tom did. Only the Urdu word ‘shireeni’ (sweetness) does justice to describe his flowing speech accompanied by his piercing gaze.

Strangely, I found myself becoming a small part of Tom’s story, when in the last months of her life his mother Barbara and my mother were at the same nursing home in adjacent rooms. That’s when I came to know Tom and his elder sister Martha Chen.

I still remember Barbara's words: “Siraj, my husband used to say: 'Urdu itni meethi zabaan hai ke mujhe yaqeen hai ke jannat mein logon ki zabaan Urdu hi hogi'” (Urdu is such a sweet language that I am sure it will be spoken in Heaven).

She passed on in 2015, and her cremated ashes were interred in Mussoorie, India, next to her husband’s.

Tom with daughter Afshaan at his mother Barbara’s 90th birthday party in 2010

A year later, I was in Dubai on a consulting assignment when Tom arrived from Mumbai as part of the play Lal Qile Ka Aakhri Mushaira (The Last Mushaira at Red Fort), hosted by Bazm-e-Urdu, a literary club in the city. The play was to be staged on August 17, 2017. Tom was playing Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar and had kindly arranged a VIP seat for me. We were supposed to meet at his hotel a day earlier to offer Fateha for Barbara together.  However, he was unable to travel due to illness.

I later learnt, from what turned out to be his last email to me, that he had skin cancer. A month later 29 September 2017, Tom Alter made a graceful exit from this worldly stage.

I recall Shakespeare’s lines. “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women, merely players: They have their exits and entrances. And one man in his time plays many parts. His acts being seven ages.” (As You Like It, Act II Scene VII).

Tom Alter played his roles brilliantly, on stage and off. In fact, I know of nobody else who did it better than him and I wonder if the pakka Indian is entertaining God up there.

Tom, you took the early train too soon. We, too, will leave the stage to join you when our call comes.


This is a Sapan News syndicated feature

The author is a Karachi-born, Boston-based global finance and audit specialist. A connoisseur of South Asian film music, he has written scripts and directed concerts in the USA, South Asia and the UAE. He believes in using art and culture to build bridges.