Wednesday, 5 September 2007

AN EVENING WITH ALTER

“For many journalists it is easy to portray me as the one who acts in the roles of brutal Angrej. You tell me how many films and television serials you have seen in which I had such a role?” Tom Alter asks me. We were sitting in an air-conditioned bus just before his ‘call time’ for the shooting of Rang Rasiya – a bilingual film on the life of painter Raja Ravi Varma. Alter is acting in the role of a judge in the Ketan Mehta-directed film. “It’s a good judge contrary to the wrong perception some people have about my screen roles,” Alter tells me as he requests the spot boy for coffee.

I knew that Alter would soon recite Bob Dylan’s Masters of War. Dylan brings the thought of songs of protest. Like him, Alter also has a “strong” anti-war sentiment. “I think the act of war is the most obscene thing of the human civilisation. That’s why Masters of War was chosen which as we all know is a classic anti-war song.” However, Alter would prefer to recite rather than sing it.

We take a look into the plays in English language performed in India. Aren’t they meant for the select few who would understand the language? – I asked. Alter took no time to reply. “I think English language is very much Indian. It may be catering to a niche audience and in that way every language has a niche audience. But we do not think that way or else plays in Hindi would have to be performed only in North Indian states,” he explains. “In fact the audience for English plays is growing in India,” he adds.

He turns attention to the origin of the plays. For him, works of Indian playwrights are “more preferable” to those penned by foreign playwrights. Alter mentions the works of Cyrus Dastur and Shivani Tibrewala as fine examples of Indian plays. In this context Got to be Aishwarya finds a place in our discussion. I mention his works that could also figure in that list. But Alter, with his characteristic modesty, makes just a passing reference of them.

I bring in A R Rahaman and his project with Andrew Lloyd Webber. Alter pauses a little.
“So far anything like that hasn’t happened with me but honestly, I don’t feel any great need to collaborate for an international project,” he says.

The thespian is now working in “three lovely films” along with his love for writing. “I do not work for the television that much now”, he says. I ask him about his writings and he mentions cricket. “I am very passionate about the game and I am writing on it, besides fictions”, he informs me.

A lady gets in the bus to hand over the script for film scenes. And we get into the film world. Alter praises the “amazing confidence of the young actors” but also hopes that “they would couple it with experience and patience.” I wondered whether the Hindi films, with the added spice of “item numbers”, have impressed Alter. He mentions Helen and rest of the bandwagon who were the initiators. “But I do agree with you that item numbers have degraded the quality of films. At least there were good stories earlier. Now most of the stories are useless,” he says. But all is not without hope. Alter specifies some “good films” that he liked. They include, Lage Raho Munnabhai, Chak De India, Parineeta, Laggan, Rang De Basanti and Omkara “despite the item song.”

But beyond the world of big films, there are short films. I mention this to Alter and the efforts of Cyrus Dastur to promote short films. “Cyrus is the most eccentric genius of Mumbai. What he is doing is wonderful. But I am not sure whether short films can really take on bigger films. Each have their own space and for me it would be fantastic to work in short films,” Alter tells me before we get into a little bit of chatting about my hometown Calcutta.