His hair's turned silver but it was hard to miss the sparkle in Tom Alter's eyes as Bollywood's favourite white man walked, talked and spouted powerful words of Tagore at the Purba Paschim Theatre Festival recently. A chat with the 62-year-old thespian...
Tell us about the play that you're doing for the Purba Paschim theatre festival.
With love: Finding Rabi Thakur is a play written, directed and produced by Mallika Sarabhai and co-written and co-directed by Steve Mayer-Miller from Australia. It's a look at Tagore towards the end of his life when he goes to Buenos Aires, falls ill and meets Victoria Ocampo ' a stage when he is going through a late middle-age crisis.
There's a small section in Bengali but basically it's an English play where I play Tagore. It's a part of Tagore's 150 years celebrations. We opened at Natarani, Mallika's theatre in Ahmedabad, in end-2011 and have been doing it all over India for the past eight months. We've performed this play in Calcutta in February. I've always loved performing in Calcutta. Bengalis have a tremendous sense of the written and spoken word, theatre and the arts. So to perform before a Bengali audience is always fantastic.
From Mirza Ghalib, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Gandhi to M.F. Husein, Einstein and now Tagore, you've played very powerful and iconic roles on stage. How do you switch between these different headspaces?
It's been a tremendous thing for me to play these amazing characters. On the top, of course, is Tagore. It's been an honour and a pleasure to play him. There's a responsibility but more than that, there's a joy.
They've affected the world very deeply with their art or science. To have a chance to play them on stage is both a challenge and a privilege. You're touched and at the same time you realise what these people really were. It's the play and the way it's written that you take your inspiration from.
What does Tagore mean to you?
What I love is that his sense of romance was not restricted to one man, woman or country. His romance was with the entire universe. That's what I love about him and you see that in Gitanjali. He's not just a Bengali or an Indian but a universal artist.
Chitrangada and Shesher Kobita have beautiful stories: very straightforward, hard-hitting and powerful, something I'd like to do on stage.
You've been doing a lot of theatre lately...
I've been doing so much theatre for the last 10 years. I've been doing it since 1979 but right now, there are a dozen plays that are active and I keep doing those around the country and the world. It's a beautiful, beautiful time in theatre right now for me.
You have a penchant for Urdu poetry and theatre but does it have takers?
Yes, absolutely. Urdu is a language everybody loves. We've done Maulana Azad for the last 10 years and Mirza Ghalib for the last five and they have had tremendous response. It's a beautiful, lyrical language.
I'm constantly reading Urdu. We've performed Maulana in England, the US, Muscat and Dubai and going back to do Bahadur Shah Zafar at Parliament in England next month. The language has lovers in every corner of the world.
What else has been keeping you busy?
There's so much coming up, that I can't remember anything apart from what I'm doing right now. I've just produced a film called Cheekha, directed by Adeya Partha. Cheekh means to scream or shout and "cheekha" is someone who screams. It's a very interesting story and I play a monk who falls in love with a courtesan. It should be ready for release in one or two months.
What about directing?
I've wanted to direct a film for a long time. I'm waiting for the right time. I've just directed my first big play called Yadi on Gandhiji, a look at what might have happened, had he not got shot. I'm directing a serial on DD Urdu. It's my own story and I'll start shooting in November.
What was the deciding moment when you wanted to become an actor?
When I saw Sharmila [Tagore] and Rajesh Khanna on screen for the first time in Aradhana, I decided I wanted to do films. I had told him [Khanna] many times and he was very moved. It's the same with Sharmila. So I joined FTII, studied acting, came to Bombay in 1974 and even played a romantic lead in a 1977 film called Chameli Memsaab, shot in Calcutta by Ajit Lahiri. Then Naseeruddin Shah, Benjamin Gilani and I started the group Motley Productions in 1979.
Motley is still going strong. Why did you quit?
I was with Motley for almost 10 years and then I had a feeling that I needed to move on artistically, make my own path.
You're one of the few who have gone beyond the stereotype of being cast in "white-man" roles. Did you need to put in something extra to prove yourself?
I was never that in real life. Whatever you are in real life eventually gets portrayed in your art. And when people realised that was not what I was, I got tremendous roles.
As someone who's done a lot of television, how do you see Indian television today?
Around 10 or 12 years ago, Indian television became totally money-minded. It's run by sponsors and channels, with the creative part sidelined.
When television opened up in the 1990s, I was deeply involved till about 1998 and the first thing that people were concerned about was the making, quality, dialogue.... Then the channels and sponsors would come in.
I deeply regret and miss that television, which was such a way of telling fantastic, unusual stories where nothing was exaggerated.
What drew your attention to writing on cricket?
I love cricket. I used to be an all-rounder. And I come from a family of writers. So, I combined my love for writing and sports and became a sports journalist in 1984. It's a family passion. I still write columns.
Cricket is my favourite sport but I hate the IPL. No one remembers yesterday's IPL match, but you ask me who won a Test match in 1971, I can tell you the score card.
That's because the IPL, for me, is pornography and Test cricket, a love story.
If you had the power to change one thing about Indian theatre today, what would it be?
Cell phones should not be allowed inside theatres. Like people leave their shoes outside a mandir, people should be forced to leave their cell phones at the door and collect them when they leave the theatres. Why people can't keep their cell phones quiet for even an hour, I don't know.
Also, they keep clicking with their cell phone cameras, which keep flashing while the play is on. All artistes are sick and tired of this. I've lost my temper many times, thrown people out of halls. It is so insulting. It's only five per cent of the audience, but they ruin it for everybody else. It's not just a problem. It's a tsunami.
And you're still one of those rare ones surviving without the device...
Yes, for peace of mind! We've survived for many years without cell phones and we've all been very happy, so I don't have any intention of getting one ever!