Asmita just alerted me in the comments that Tom Alter has passed away. Which immediately brought up his face in my head. He has been in sooooooo many movies. And he did such a good job in them! (If you are interested in seeing a recent performance, he was in M Cream which is now on Netflix)
In the grand scheme of white Hindi film actors, Tom Alter was something special. Born and raised in India, the child of missionary parents who were also born and raised in India, Hindi was his childhood language, and India was his home country. He wasn’t “acting” Indian in movies, he WAS Indian. Just, an Indian with white skin.
I first saw him in Asambhav, a terribly wonderful movie with Tom Alter, Naseeruddin Shah and very young and starting out Arjun Rampal and Priyanka Chopra. And a ridiculous plot. Tom Alter was there to be Naseerji’s scene partner, which is a compliment in itself. Certainly young Priyanka and Arjun weren’t up to the task, so they had to bring in a ringer.
(Although both Young Priyanka and Young Arjun are very very pretty.)
And it wasn’t just that he batted the dialogue back and forth like a pro, it’s that there was a real comfort there. He and Naseerji had been working together since they were in their twenties, in theater groups and films and everywhere else. We believed the backstory that they were old friends from India who had somehow landed in Switzerland as drug dealers/smugglers/nightclub owners (like I said, I terribly wonderful movie), because that kind of was their backstory, old friends from India who somehow landed in a film in which they played Swiss drug dealers.
There’s more to being a Hindi film actor than just knowing Hindi. Tom knew Hindi, but he also knew Indian acting. He had friendships going back decades with people throughout the industry, he knew how to emote and declaim in Indian style, and he had no shame in taking a small “anti-hero’s friend” role, or working in half a dozen or more films in one year. Or in mixing together challenging artistic performances with fun potboilers.
I don’t know if we will have another Tom Alter in Hindi cinema. I hope so, another reminder that India is made up of more than just the standard type. And a reminder that excellence can be recognized no matter what it looks like. And just how open the Indian film industry is.