Baatein With Tom Alter


Three – Tom Alter, Pascal Seiger and Suresh performed at NID Heritage Campus last evening. Alter recited and performed in English and Urdu. Seiger created magic on his Saxophone and Suresh danced to classical Ottam Thullil style using mythological narratives.

It was a fairly nice evening put together by three diverse performances. I particularly enjoyed the ‘Father & Son’ play by Alter. It was a fairly simple and predictable story, but his expressions and acting were classic. Seiger improvised on his saxophone which I initially found difficult to listen to, but when he explained the techniques he used, I realized how difficult it must’ve been. Suresh was interesting, particularly for his antics on stage in the midst of his performance.

The acts were followed by a small informal baatein session. Tom spoke about the play – its beginnings, how the three of them met at Adi Shakti and also shared some experiences of their previous performances. What follows below is an excerpt from the talk, one where Alter talks about his views on journalism and Slumdog Millionaire.

Many thanks to Dr. D.J. Mathew for sharing these stunning photographs.

Suresh, Tom Alter and Pascal Seiger

You’ve acted in so many movies. How did you deal with being typecasted?

I’ve not been typecast. The very first film in which I appeared was a film called Charas with Dharmendra and Hema Malini. I played Dharmendra’s boss. I was famous in entire Punjab in those days because Dharmendra was god in the Punjab region. Yeh to Dharamji ka boss bana. I played a very positive role of a interpol officer who would speak Hindi and usme sher-o-shairi bhi thi – that was my very first film. So since the very first film, I’ve never been typecast. Its the work of journalists who refuse to do any research; its very convenient and easy for them to write, “Oh, Pascal is a Frenchman who came and lived in Auroville and therefore he’s like this”, “Suresh is from Kerala and he cannot speak Hindi, so he’s like that”, “Tom Alter is angrez” and so on. Journalists are the laziest professionals in this entire country. They dont do any research. Its not a battle for me, because I’ve never fought it. I’ve just done what I wanted to do. I came into films because I wanted to be the next Rajesh Khanna.

I remember when I applied to the Film Institute, (aap logon ko woh zamana yaad nahin hai – 1972), every second top film actor was coming out of the Film Institute. To get into the Film Institute was… once you got into it, you won the key to heaven. I auditioned just like everybody else. There were more than 1000 of us in Delhi for the auditions and out of that 1000, two of us were selected. I happened to be one. I got in purely on merit and nobody asked me are you american, Indian or angrez. I’ve never cared and I’ve never had to give such a long speech as I just have. Its been fantastic. and I’m not been typecast. I’ve been extremely happy.

On stage, for the last ten years, I’ve played Maulana Azad, Sehgal, Arjun, etc. Its been fantastic. So when these journalists say … I remember when I went to Bhopal.. I’ll tell you how bad it is with these journalists. I was doing this play ‘Maulana Azad’ in Bhopal. They had put up a big banner -‘Tom Alter in and as Maulana Azad’. They had put these posters all over. We were having a press conference, which I didn’t want to attend, but one which I was forced to. One big journalist from Bhopal, I cant recollect his name, he said – “Mr. Tam, why you only play Angrez”. I looked at him and told him “aap ke peeche jo poster laga hai, yeh kya kisi angrez ka hai?” He looked -“Oh, this is play on Maulana Azad, so you are playing Lord Mount Batten?” Uske baad, maine woh gaaliyan di us aadmi ko, jo mai aapke samne nahi de sakta hoon. And I said – “You get out, before I kill you”. This is the level of intelligence, commitment and research that we have to deal with day in and day out with journalists and I’m not patient any more. I get very very angry.

Tom Alter

We’ve heard that you’ve recently made some interesting comments on Slumdog Millionaire. Can you share it with us?

I dont want to get passionate. I think Slumdog Millionaire as a film is exploitive, clever, predictable and mediocre. How in the world it won eight oscars, I dont have a clue. I really dont have a clue. I’m stunned by it. What worries me is not that it won eight oscars but in the great city of Bombay, very few of the big directors and producers have had the guts to stand up and say that its not a good film. Whether its Yash Chopra, Subhash Ghai, Karan Johar – they’ve all said that this was a great moment in India cinema. Its not even ‘indian cinema’, so how can it be a great moment? Its not Indian film. Somebody said to me, a journalist – ‘oh India should be very proud, India has won eight oscars’. India has not won eight oscars, Indians have won eight oscars, not India! Its not our film. But that to me, is not the issue. The issue is what I’ve said – its a mediocre film. And the other thing that gets me very upset, (please take this in the right light) the scene where the car is stripped of its four wheels and everything in front of the Taj Mahal. Now a car bought in by two foreign tourists is stripped of its four wheels and sound system in broad daylight in front of the Taj?? What are we talking about? Then that little kid as he’s getting bashed up, says ‘you wanted to see India? This is real India’. Now if that film was made by Karan Johar, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Yash Chopra, Aditya Chopra, Subash Ghai, the Shiv Sena would have gone into their house the next morning and burnt it down because you’re blaspheming India. Nobody has said a damn thing because it was made by an angrez. Now they’re wrong to say anything, but where do we stand? Let’s take a stand and say what is quality and what is not quality? All of us can name ten films – Hindi films, Malayalam films, French films, we’ve seen in the last one year that are a hundred times better Slumdog.

I’m happy for the individuals who won the Oscars. I spoke to Gulzar today – Gulzar is a very dear friend of mine. Maine kaha, “Gulzar bhai mubarak ho”. “Tom bhai, mai kya kahoon aur kya na kahoon? Bas mujhe milgaya”. Maine kahan, “Likte waqt aapne ye kabhi socha ki Oscar milega?” He said – “Oscar kya, maine kabhi award ke bare mein nahi socha. Ab dekhiye kya mila.”

When we have to, in all walks of life, whether its tonight’s performance or Slumdog Millionaire or whatever you’re designing, lets stand up and if something is bad, lets say its bad. If something is good, lets say its good. And, Slumdog is a bad film!

I’m sorry, even if had not won a single award, I would’ve said the same thing. Its a bad film. I see nothing outstanding except for the performance of the young kids and the young kids were fantastic. And that Dev Patel was very good. The young guy from Film Institute, my institute, has won an award for sound mixing. But has any paper said that two other people also won the award with him? No. Har akhbar mein yahi hai ki hindustani ko oscar award mila. Bhai do aur angrez bhi to the saath mein us award main. Has any paper said that? We have to face the truth. Speak the truth. Thats why I love this play – Maulana Azad. He’s speaking his truth in it. He had the guts to stand up and tell people that they’re wrong. We have to do that. If we cannot stand up in a public function and say that Slumdog is a mediocre film, where are we headed; because now Slumdog has now become the… benchmark. And why are Yash Chopra, Subhash Ghai and Karan Johar saying.. because all they’re seeing is the next fifty million dollar project would come to them. Yash Chopra has lost, going on, two hundred crores of rupees in the last two years as his films have been a flop. ‘Coz he’s been making absolute rubbish. Which is the last film that the great Yash Chopra actually made himself? Veer Zara? I’m sorry, Veer Zara was produced by him but not directed. What was the last film he directed himself? I’m a big fan of his old films. Can anybody tell me? Silsila! When was that made? Bees sal pehle! (twenty years ago) What was the last great film that Subhash Ghai made? That was twenty years ago. What was the last great film that Vidhu Vinodh Chopra made? He made one – Parinda. Bees saal pehle. All these guys – great cinema idols/icons of the Bombay Film Industry, because of the corporate nonsense they got involved in, none of these great guys have actually made films themselves for like twenty years. Yash Chopra has not even made a film. These people are desperate and suddenly Slumdog Millionaire comes on – wow! Its just the same theory that – whats her name – Jitendra’s daughter, Ekta Kapoor – Make mediocrity because its easy to make and its not expensive. Publicize it. Make sure that nothing else can get to compete with it and then walk home with crores and crores of rupees. I am frightened to death that this is whats gonna happen with our film industry after Slumdog. Infact, in the last five years we’ve made some outstanding hindi films. Commercial. Outstanding. But I’m afraid this whole silsila which had started with Lagaan and has gone upto.. well, I would say the latest…of I mean so many films that you can take the name of, but … something like Rock On. This whole silsila is gonna come to a stop because they are all far better films than Slumdog. Just because Slumdog has made money and won awards, people are gonna start making Slumdogs.

We were making films like Slumdogs back in the 80’s. What type of films made Amitabh famous? Slumdog. Twenty five years ago! Its beyond my imagination. And I want somebody who’s worked in that film to have the guts to stand up and say what I’ve just been saying. They all know it in their hearts but will they say? I want Saurabh Shukla or Irfan Khan, brilliant actors, who in this film are bufoons; I want one of them to stand up and say that this film is lousy. But will they do it? No. Taka – all they can see is money.

Sorry, I said I wouldn’t be compassionate about it. I do think its a very dangerous moment in Hindi Cinema, because we’re just coming from a very low moment and in the last 5-10 years we’ve made some absolutely brilliant films. I’m afraid that its all gonna go back to mediocrity and I hope and pray that it doesn’t.