20 February 2009

At Delhi's Alter - Profile

On the eve of the performance of his new play, City of Djinns, Trisha Gupta speaks to Tom Alter about theatre and cinema, Delhi and Bombay, and playing William Dalrymple.

Tom Alter’s first memory of coming to Delhi dates back to a family trip made during Eisenhower’s visit to India. The Alters had come down from Rajpur (a town just below Mussoorie) to see the Republic Day Parade. “It must have been either 1957 or 1959. Watching the parade was a big thing at that time. Seeing the US President was okay, but to see Nehru – even from a distance – was to see a god of our childhood.” The parade was grand, but it went on and on and on – and seven-year-old Tom had to go to the bathroom. “There was no way to leave the premises – so eventually I just went behind the stands and did whatever I had to do,” laughed Alter.

Delhi remained a permanent fixture through Alter’s adolescent years in Mussoorie, as the place where you could do all the things you couldn’t do in a small hill station. “I must have taken every single mode of transport possible to get to Delhi from Mussoorie – bicycle, bus, taxi, car, motorcycle, plane,” said Alter. Many of those trips to the big city were pilgrimages to attend sports events – Ramanathan Krishnan playing at the Delhi Gymkhana, Bishan Singh Bedi playing his first international match (which wasn’t a test match, it was the President’s Eleven against the West Indies), and the Durand Cup. Then his parents moved to Delhi themselves – they lived in the city from 1969 to 1980. “First they were in Alipur Road, later in Jangpura Extension. They lived in a house on Birbal Road,” reminisced Alter. “I loved Delhi. In fact I was reluctant to go to Bombay, because I loved Delhi so much.”

But go to Bombay he did. Bitten early by the film bug, Alter went to FTII Pune, and arrived in Bombay in the mid-1970s. “I came to Bombay with one passion, that was films. I was never a theatrewala,” said Alter. “But great theatre has just come knocking on my door.” He was part of the formation of Motley in 1979, along with Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani. Motley’s first production, Edward Albee’s Zoo Story inaugurated what Alter remembers as “a tremendous five-six years” for the group as well as for him personally. “I was privileged to be able to watch Naseer and Ben in our production of Waiting for Godot, which almost became synonymous with Motley. Such brilliant performances. Around the same time, in the late 70s, I remember Om (Puri) in Udhwasth Dharamshala. When I think of him in that play, I still get goosebumps. That’s one person I really wish would do more work on the stage,” Alter said. He paused for a moment and then went on, “Who knows, maybe Om might read your piece – and think about it.”

Alter stopped working with Motley around 1986-87. “I think my last Motley play was Arms and the Man.” Work in cinema, which had begun with ?? continued. But by the early ‘90s, Alter was completely taken up with a different medium: TV. “It was a hectic time. “There was one day of the week – I think it was Thursday – when I was on TV on seven different shows on the same day,” said Alter. With the crazy shooting schedules that entailed, there was simply no time to do theatre. “That kind of innings comes only once in a lifetime. I loved it, but I probably aged by about fifteen years in that five-year period,” Alter said half-ruefully. The return to theatre has been, yet again, unplanned. In 1999 or 2000, Alter started working with some Urdu poetry written by an old friend called Idraak Bhatti. At first it was only him reciting the poetry. Then his old FTII buddies, actor Uday Chandra and Chandar Khanna, got involved as well, with various acts of their own. “Uday used to do a performance of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, where Gregor Samsa turns into a cockroach. It was a one-man show. And Chandar brought in his recitation of Jayadrath Vadh, the famous Nirala poem, which he had been doing for years.” After the addition of background music, some English poetry and some Bob Dylan songs, Alter, Chandra and Khanna put the show together for a performance at Mallika Sarabhai’s Darpana in Ahmedabad, in September 2001. It was Mallika’s mother Mrinalini Sarabhai who suggested the name Trisangha: three things coming together. “Trisangha has been like a garden for us, out of which amazing things have grown,” said Alter.

Being based in Mumbai means that most of Alter’s work on the stage is with Mumbai-based groups. But he has also worked with groups from Delhi, most notably with M Sayeed Alam in Maulana Azad, a play written and directed by Alam himself. “Playing Azad was an honour for me, a gift. To do a play on such an amazing man – and I think it’s the most beautiful original script – which runs for two and a half hours, with no interval, and just has one man talking on stage… It got good reviews, but I think Maulana has not, as a play about the ethos of twentieth century India, got the credit it deserves.”

Sayeed Alam returns the compliment. “I was looking for someone who had a command over Urdu, and so the choice was really between Naseeruddin Shah and Tom. In 1998, when I was writing the script, I happened to see Shatranj ke Khiladi, in which I felt that he was more comfortale in Urdu than Saeed Jaffrey, for whom it is a mother tongue!” saisd Alam.

Having worked in both cities, does he feel there’s a difference between the theatre scene in Mumbai and in Delhi? “I think people working in theatre in Delhi are if anything more passionate about it than in Bombay. The young talent in Alam’s plays – and now in City of Djinns – is humbling.”

City of Djinns is a theatrical adaptation of William Dalrymple’s celebrated portrait of Delhi, first published in 1993. Part travelogue, part history book, Dalrymple’s book weaves engaging accounts of different periods in Delhi’s history into a first-person narrative based on his own experience of the city. Since the book is 350 pages long and contains literally hundreds of characters, any attempt to stage it must necessarily involve choices about what to keep and what to leave out. Among the characters who have been retained are Mr and Mrs Puri, from whom Dalrymple rents a house, Balvinder Singh the taxi driver, BB Lal the archaeologist, Ahmed Ali the author of Twilight in Delhi, Shamim the calligrapher and his brother Ali who run a photo studio in Old Delhi, Begum Hamida Sultan and Nora Nicholson, the English lady who stayed on after independence. “The Nora Nicholson character is played by Zohra Saigal, so naturally it’s an important part in the play,” said Alter.

Dalrymple spent time in Delhi towards the end of the ‘80s and in the beginning of the ‘90s. “The book is a document of the time. He talks of how difficult it was to get a phone connection, or bring a personal music system into the country. Things have changed so much since then,” mused Alter. “If in 1990 someone had said that you could have 65 channels on TV, that you could buy Levis jeans, or talk to America for 3 rupees a minute, I wouldn’t have believed them.” And yet, Alter feels, there are many things about the city that haven’t changed as much as some people would like to believe. “Many people feel that Delhi has become sophisticated, and that people no longer talk the way Mrs. Puri did – talking about foreigners “making seven flushes in one night” and so on. But there are still so many Mrs. Puris in Delhi – lovely, earthy characters who speak English exactly in that way,” he said. Alter disagrees with people who think that Dalrymple makes fun of many of his characters. “It is not done with malice. Just like we make fun of the angrez in every second Hindi film.” While he believes that Dalrymple’s book has only gained from having “an outsider’s perspective,” he has a quibble with its claim that Urdu is dead in Delhi. “That’s absolutely wrong. Urdu may no longer be the language of the ruling classes, but there are lakhs of people here who live Urdu.”

As does Alter himself. Which is part of the reason why Rahul Pulkeshi, producer of the play, had no doubt that Alter was the man for the part. “To play Dalrymple, we needed someone who was white. But the play is about Dilli, history, tradition, ghazals, Sufis – we needed someone who could represent all these things. And who better than Tom?”

Published in Time Out Delhi, March 2007

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