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Tom Alter, Urdu speaking actor of American descent who brought 'Maulana Azad' to life, dies

Saturday September 30, 2017 11:15 AM, Hena Farhat, Staff Reporter

Tom Alter
[Tom Alter addressing the inaugural ceremony of the ten-day All India Urdu book fair organised by the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL) in Malegaon on January 03, 2014. (File photo]

Tom Alter, Urdu speaking renowned Indian actor of American descent died of cancer, family sources said in a statement released today. He was 67.

Tom Alter was taken to Saifee Hospital earlier this month with stage four skin cancer, for which he had been treated earlier and which had relapsed. He was taken home on Thursday and died on Friday night, according to multiple media reports.

"It is with sadness we announce the death of Tom Alter, actor, writer, director, Padma Shri, and our dear husband and father", a statement released on behalf of actor's family said.

Tom Alter, who received the Padma Shri in 2008, was last seen in Sargoshiyan this year with Alok Nath and Farida Jalal. He is survived by his wife Carol, son Jamie and daughter Afshaan.

Tom Alter was born in 1950 in Mussoorie, the son of American missionaries. He studied at Woodstock School in Mussoorie and later at Pune's Film and Television Institute.

Tom Alter appeared in over 300 films which included the acclaimed Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Sardar and Parinda. His credits include Aashiqui, Junoon, Ram Teri Ganga Maili and Gandhi. Mr Alter’s TV work ranged from Bharat Ek Khoj to Shaktimaan. He also worked in Bengali, Assamese and Telugu cinema. A cricket enthusiast, he also wrote for several sporting journals and was a published author.

The actor however was also popular for his command over the Urdu and love for the language.

In 2014, his audience were surprised when he quoted from the Bible to prove that Urdu is not the language of Muslims alone.

"How can Urdu belong to Muslims or any other religion when it describes God's message with such a beauty", Tom Alter said while addressing the inaugural session of the ten-day Urdu Kitab Mela - the all India Urdu book fair organised by the National Council for Promotion of Urdu Language (NCPUL).

Recalling his childhood, Tom Alter said that he learnt Urdu from his father who was a priest, and there was always a copy of the Urdu translation of the Bible on his table. He said he was mesmerised by the beauty of the translation of the Bible in the language.

Tom Alter said that he was not the enemy of Hindi, English or any other language and regarded all languages with equal importance. He also described Hindi as the sister language of Urdu.

"However", he said, "The Urdu language has a special taste and power which other languages are lacking in."

Rejecting the fear that the Urdu language is on decline and there is no future, he urged the people to adopt the language with pride.

"Urdu doesn't need our help for survival. The fact is that it is we who actually need this language', he said amid applaud.

In the same evening Tom Alter also staged his popular play Maulana Azad - a solo, on Maulana Abul Kalam Azad – one of the tallest figures of Indian freedom struggle and the country's first education minister.

The play focusses on the life of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and how he contributed to the Indian freedom struggle and educational development of the country. The saga of the life of Azad since his childhood till his old age has been shown in 20 scenes. It has also been shown that 55-year-old Azad is writing a book in Ahmed Nagar Jail between 1942 and 1945.

The play begins with the childhood of Maulana Azad, eventually taking the audience forward to a peep into his younger days. Events from Azad’s life were beautifully narrated by Tom Alter in the role of old Maulana Azad remembering the incidents of his life, including discussions on political and educational issues with Gandhi and Sardar Patel and also about their drawbacks.

In his solo play staged in a number of countries Tom Alter also talks about Gandhi’s Satyagraha and non-violent movement and during independence, how this movement turned into Hindu-Muslim riots on a massive scale.

While describing the saga of Indo-Pak partition, Azad says that “I don’t want to pay the price for Independence with partition. However it’s unfortunate that Gandhi and Nehru couldn’t stop this historical tragedy”.

Tom Alter staged "Maulana Azad" for 15 long years.

In an interview with Arab News after he brought to life "Maulana Azad' in Jeddah - barely 70 kms to Makkah, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad'd birthplace in Saudi Arabia, Alter said he had always been fascinated by Azad’s philosophy as a great writer, leader, statesman, scholar in Persian and Arabic, and a man who dedicated his life to finding the truth.

“Above all Maulana Azad believed that religion should not be the basis of a country with a multiplicity of religions. He was a devout Muslim, whose life and works are a tremendous lesson for the world. “Religion is an important part of life and is personal,” he said.

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