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India's Tom Alter: A white actor too often typecast

Indian actor Tom Alter, a veteran of more than 300 films, has died aged 67. Born to parents who emigrated to India from the US, he was often typecast as an English-speaking foreigner, despite his mastery of Hindi.

Well-known in the world of Indian theater and a familiar face to millions on the big screen, Alter succumbed to cancer at his home in the Indian city of Mumbai at the age of 67.

Referred to as "the blue-eyed sahib [a polite address] with the impeccable Hindi,” Alter acted in more than 300 films, including Bollywood movies but also more artistic pieces.

Best-known of his roles to many outside India would be Gandhi, where he played a British colonial prison doctor attending Mahatma Gandhi. 

It was a typical part for him in his regular Indian cinema work. In Sardar, the 1993 film biography of Indian leader Sardar Patel, he played Lord Mountbatten of Burma, while in the 1981 film Kranti he was a British officer.

Read more: Why are actors so successful in south Indian politics?

Other notable movies from his career — in which he was all too often cast as the colonial authority figure — included Shatranj Ke Khilari (Chess Players), Parinda (Bird), Kranti (Revolution), Aashiqui (Love) and Junoon (Obsession).

'I can do other roles'

This typecasting was something that troubled Alter, as journalist and theater personality Darain Shahidi explained to DW.

"He hated that because he considered himself to be an Indian actor and his preference was always for Hindi-speaking roles. He'd say, 'I can do other roles but these guys won't give them to me. That was something he compensated for by doing Urdu and Hindi theater. He was a bit disappointed with the film industry in the end."

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The son of two Christian missionaries from Ohio, Alter embarked on a teaching career before being lured into the world of acting after watching the Hindi film Aradhana. He studied the art at the Film and Television Institute in Pune and developed his Hindi and Urdu skills to the maximum, partly aided by his love of poetry.

"He was so fluent in Hindi and Urdu that it was surprising for many people that a white man could speak like that," said Shahidi. "His pronunciation and diction was so clear and crisp that many people who had Hindi as a mother tongue were jealous of him."

Man of many facets

Alter, who won the Indian government's "Padma Shri Award" in 2008 for his contribution to the fields of arts and cinema, was also a huge cricket enthusiast and wrote about the sport for several outlets.

Read more: Films, actors become entangled in India-Pakistan tensions

In this journalistic capacity, Alter was the first person to interview Indian cricket great Sachin Tendulkar.

"He was a great person, with many, many facets," said Shahidi. "He also had a good sense of humor. I once reminded him of his role in this film Don't Cry Over Salim the Lame. ‘I'm still crying, man' he said. It didn't do great business as a film."

Alter was seemingly tireless in his devotion to work, at one point performing 17 different plays over 17 days – twice a day – making 34 performances in all.

Alter's most recent role, despite being in pain after being diagnosed with skin cancer last year, was in the play Once Upon a Time.

"People who saw that play told me they didn't see an iota of pain in his face," said Shahidi.

"He was in deep pain, but once he was on stage he was on fire."

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