Tom Alter: Real Life imitates Reel Life

Mysteriously in my case real life imitated reel life. Tom played the character of the enlightened grandfather in my film “The Path of Zarathustra” where I played a young woman seeking true wisdom and understanding the world as it really is. My experience of enacting these scenes with Tom and interacting with him on the sets of my film was like gaining wisdom on and off screen. I feel blessed that he agreed to play the most important role in my film and feel fortunate that all the other Parsi actors I approached before him said a big ‘No’. He may not be a Parsi but epitomizes the spirit of the character (which is beyond belonging to any religion) with every gesture, word and look.  He had an aura of something pure which makes the film come to life.

Anyone who has met and worked with Tom Alter has been touched with his warmth and loving kindness and can never forget him and will always remember him very fondly. He is no more – that is the cold fact of life. The body has gone but all who knew Tom can keep his spirit alive, and that is what I hope to do. He taught me true grace like no one else and I want to find a sacred place for that in my heart and let it grow, and spread joy like I experienced being in his company. In this world of selfish people he was a genuine caring soul.

I recollect the time of pre-production when I felt my project was stuck, I had started the casting for my film and nothing was working out. While I sat dejected suddenly a face flashed before my eyes from nowhere, it was Tom’s Alter’s face. I did not personally know Tom or was not a big fan of his yet. However I pursued my intuition and connected with a few friends and got Tom’s contact details.  Of course I was told he does not have a mobile phone and the best way to contact him is through his email. I wondered whether I would ever receive a response. But I did receive a prompt response asking me to send him the script which was written by Farrukh Dhondy. He liked the script and agreed to now meet me at his lovely home at Mumbai Central where he personally made some excellent coffee and served some biscuits. I was nervous whether he would agree but he did and after he was on board like a magic touch one by one my problems were resolved and the project took off. After the release of the film one day I asked him, “Tom what really made you say yes to the film”, and he said “Your sincerity and conviction”.  But of course the first step was the script as he had to always believe in what he supported and once he did then he wholehearted was there for you.  He not only agreed to act in my film but also helped me complete the key casting. His help was always immediate and forthcoming, unhesitant he solved my two key casting problems by picking up the phone and introduced me to two lovely actors Shishir Sharma and Vivek Tandon and coming from Tom, it’s very rare that someone refuses you.

This was my first feature film and I was directing and acting in it besides co-producing it with my dad Sorab Irani so there were a lot of challenges but when Tom was on set it was always special like I was transported into the realm of the film. He never encouraged a lie in cinema and the memory is so vivid even today of filming his death scene. We shot the scene through multiple angles including a master long shot. When it was my turn for doing the scene in close-ups the cinematographer wanted me to cheat the look for camera but Tom insisted I look into his eyes, it is only then he believed that the truth of the emotion will be captured on screen. Tom has supported umpteen young directors who have started their journey and we will all be indebted to him for his sincere support, advise and endless encouragement.

At some moments of chaos on the shoot of my film Tom silently observed and once gave me fatherly advise, to the effect that I being the captain of the ship needed to be more firm and not too lenient and give commands, never let anybody on the set take that right away from me as a Director. At that point I felt uncomfortable that I did not show my best self or did not get my act together but soon realized it’s important to get the facts or the facts will get you. And even though Tom was a gentle soul he was also firm and strong in what he believed and knew to get his way around and reminded you that gentleness should not mean weakness.

To screen your completed film is a special moment for a filmmaker and is filled with anxiety each time, you wonder if you have succeeded or failed. The most moving experience of seeing my film “The Path of Zarathustra” when it was completed was not the first time after completing my colour correction on the big screen in Prasad lab but when I screened it for Tom for the first time on my laptop at his home. He did not say much but he said much more than anyone who had seen the film before, his body language spoke the language of the heart, which was beyond words. All throughout the screening he held my hand and after the film was over he lovingly placed his hand on my head as if like a blessing. He was an audience like no other and for me the film passed the test of becoming art – a glimpse of truth was captured. Making the film felt so special and worthwhile.

I feel Tom believed in the film so much, sometimes I think maybe even more than what I did. Being an independent filmmaker and actor himself he understood the struggle to finance the film, complete it and then finally be lucky to be able to release it. And when I shared with him the news that our film would be released as a PVR Directors Rare release with the professional support of my friend Sethumadhavan in theaters in five Indian cities with a Premier in Mumbai he was so proud of me and so happy for the film that it will see the light of day. I know he felt it was the success of art over commerce and enjoyed that moment of victory.

Today in his death I feel Tom’s spirit stands tall as a sentinel of art who actually practiced all his life being a true artist.

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