Remembering Tom Alter: The ‘firang’ who loved Urdu poetry
Suhail Akhtar Warsi remembers the time he directed Tom Alter as the exceptional Urdu poet Sahir Ludhianvi.
I write this tribute as an acknowledgment and salute to not just a thespian and his commitment to excellence, but to share a bit about what I knew of Tom — a person of exceptional character and fineness.
Somehow fate decided to let a rookie like me meet with Tom Alter Sahab, with my raw script on the master of words Sahir Ludhianvi. Of course, I wanted him to play the poet. At first he was as concerned with making me comfortable, as with listening to the script. But one glance at it and he said, “I don’t read Romanised scripts.”
To my relief and happiness, I was carrying a Devanagari script as well which I immediately placed before him. He read it, smiled and said:
Sahir jisay kehte hain Urdu hi ka shaayer tha
Urdu pe sitam dha ke Sahir pe karam kyun hai
Sahir had written these lines in one of his Nazms on Ghalib’s centenary. I was surprised, of course, and I was about to blurt out something nervously amateur when he laughed softly and said in his baritone, “Huzoor, huzoor! Khaaksaar, Urdu ke shaayer Sahir Ludhiyanvi sahab ko urdu ki original script mein padh sakta hai.”
God. One can imagine the expressions on my face. Many professionals are known in the industry for their impeccable Urdu diction but, they can’t read an original, right to left, Urdu script. Tom Sahab was an original Urduwalla, an aficionado, a lover of Urdu, its cadences, its sublime acuity in the truest sense. He was somebody at home in this language, as well as a brand ambassador of Urdu in a country where it is culturally alive and adored but also politically sidelined so as to make it irrelevant. Tom Sahab read and spoke Urdu with an innate, consummate ease — that of a seasoned artist to his second skin.
Logically this was the reason I had a strong inclination towards Tom Sahab to portray a legendary poet like Sahir. Although I won’t deny that I was actually a little hesitant in the beginning —because of Tom Sahab’s ‘firang‘ kind of looks. Sahir was a pure Indian-Punjabi, and there is no doubt people knew about Tom sahab was as much an Indian as Sahir himself, but still there was this inhibition about his on stage appearance as an ‘angrez’. To my consolation, I had seen him perform characters like, Bahadur Shah Zafar, Ghalib and Maulana Abulkalam Azad, and personally didn’t found him out of character as an Indian.
The only apprehension remained was the amount of poetry used in Sahir’s script. For about 60% of the narrative, I used Sahir’s easier to understand poems. The delivery of poetry is never like delivering a prosaic dialogue, but while rehearsing with the poetry I was astonished to see the way Tom Sahab was gelling poetic lines with the prosaic dialogue. We did the premier of Parchhayiaan at Nehru Centre in Mumbai and, of course, it was a jam-packed, smashing hit show. Tom Sahab rocked it.
I was most fortunate to direct him in the play. Standing before this seasoned actor I felt dwarfed by his charismatic magnetism, the sheer power of his stage presence. He always called me “Suhail bhai” — only a Dervesh could have said this. We did a couple of shows of Parchhayiyaan. Since staging plays is not a very lucrative business, I remember very clearly, before every show he used to say, Suhail bhai, mujhe kuch bhi nahin chaahiye lekin aapko aur hamaare doosre artistes ko payment acha hona chaahiye. And believe me, it was not just a scripted dialogue. Like I said, he was a Dervesh!
He had this “infection” on his thumb, which he kept it bandaged. It was actually cancer. When he was to portray Sahir Ludhyanvi at Delhi, he was in immense pain because of his cancerous thumb. I advised him to drop the show but he looked at me with those mischievous baby blue eyes and said, “Suhail bhai, ye to kuch bhi nahin hai. Sahir perform karte huwe kisi dard ka ehsaas hi kahaan reh jaata hai.” And he performed two shows back to back.
Trust me, Sahir is not an easy character to perform — he was the best revolutionarily romantic poet and lyricist of all time. His is such a strong character, but Tom Sahab performed it with that terribly hurting thumb, singing, ‘abhi na jaao chhor kar ki dil abhi bhara nahin,’ and, ‘main zindagi ka saath nibhaata chala gaya.’ I recall, it was one of his finest performances. ‘The show must go on’ was not just a theatrical expression for him. He performed a dozen shows of mine immersed in pain.
I bid a sad farewell to this Shakespearean talent that found just as fluidly, a centre of balance in the brilliance and gentle aggression of a beleaguered Sahir Ludhianvi, as in the genius of Ghalib. Tom Sahab played both parts with a deep humanity.
Main har ik pal ka shaayer hoon, har ik pal meri kahaani hai
Har ik pal meri hasti hai, har ik pal meri jawaani hai
Please allow me to use this expression for Tom sahab —
Har Ik Pal ke Tom Alter.
Rest In Peace Sir.