Tribute

Tom Alter (1950-2017): The actor, sports lover and reciter of Urdu poetry

Tom Alter has been working in Indian films since 1976. He is best known for ‘Parinda’, ‘Aashiqui’ and the TV show ‘Zabaan Sambhalke’.

Tom Alter was often asked if he was Indian. “I hope you won’t ask me if I am an Indian. I trust you know that I am one,” Alter said before the journalist even began the interview in 2003.

The go-to actor for portraying foreign characters, particularly British nationals, has died in Mumbai. Alter died on the night of September 29 at the age of 67. He had been suffering from skin cancer for the past few years. He is survived by his wife Carol and his children Jamie and Afshaan.

In a career spanning 40 years, Alter played British officers, British doctors, and anything else British numerous times. Seldom did he get purely Indian roles on screen. The exceptions include Mandakini’s screen brother Karam Singh in Raj Kapoor’s Ram Teri Ganga Maili (1985), the gangster Moosa in Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Parinda (1989) and Mahaguru, an all-powerful sage in the superhero TV series Shaktimaan (1997-2005).

Alter was actually an American. Born Thomas Beach Alter on June 22, 1950, to Presbyterian missionaries whose parents had come to India from Ohio a century ago, Alter spent his childhood in Mussoorie, Allahabad, Jabalpur, Saharanpur and Rajpur. His father, a teacher of history and English, was instrumental in giving Alter the knowledge of Hindi and Urdu. Alter, along with the members of his parents’ order, would have to recite Biblical texts in Urdu and Hindi.

Alter studied at Woodstock School in Landor. He was initially more interested in sports rather than acting, and he preferred Hollywood films to Hindi cinema. It was in 1969, after his return from Yale University, where he had studied for a year, and during his employment as a teacher in Jagadhri, a town in Haryana, that he discovered Hindi films. There, he watched Aradhana, became a lifelong fan of Rajesh Khanna, and thereafter decided to become an actor.

Play
Guftagoo with Tom Alter.

Alter enrolled into the Film and Television Institute of India and learning acting alongside Naseeruddin Shah and Benjamin Gilani under the tutelage of Roshan Taneja. Alter’s first onscreen role was of an intelligence officer in Rome trying to nab a cannabis-smuggling network in Charas (1976). Alter’s character bossed around the hero played by Dharmendra – which was a big deal at that time, especially in Punjab, where Dharmendra was hugely popular.

The next year, Alter starred as Weston, the personal secretary to General James Outram (Richard Attenborough) in Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977). Early in the movie, Alter charmed audiences with his chaste Urdu enunciation as his character recited a poem written by Awadh’s ruler Wajid Ali Shah (Amjad Khan). Alter’s command over Hindi and Urdu, and, of course, his looks, repeatedly got him roles of white, mostly villainous men who could drop purple prose at the drop of a hat: a good example being Kranti (1981) directed by and starring Manoj Kumar.

The first Indian character Alter played was that of the Gangotri resident, the simple-minded Karam Singh in Ram Teri Ganga Maili. Parinda was another interesting addition to his career because for the first time, he played a Mumbai gangster, Musa. His entry scene had him wearing a black kurta and pyjama. After Musa threatens the hero, Kishan (Jackie Shroff), a fight sequence erupts between Musa’s henchmen and Kishan.

Play
Parinda (1989).

Through the 1990s and 2000s, Alter kept playing foreign or Anglo-Indian men in several high-profile films such as Aashiqui (1990) and Veer-Zaara (2004). Alter became a household name with his comedic turn in the TV show Zabaan Sambhalke (1993-’97), in which he played a British man trying to learn Hindi in India. He went on to play supporting roles in Shaktimaan and the shortlived sci-fi series Captain Vyom (1997). Alter, who had played a series of British characters, including Louis Mountbatten in Ketan Mehta’s Sardar (1993), got a chance to play Abdul Kalam Azad in Shyam Benegal’s TV series Samvidhaan: The Making of the Constitution of India (2014).

Even as acting became Alter’s day job, he always found time to attend to his first love: sports, particularly, cricket. He has written columns on cricket for a variety of publications over time, including Sportsweek, Outlook and Debonair. In fact, he was the reporter who interviewed Sachin Tendulkar for the first time on television.

Play
Tom Alter and Sachin Tendulkar.

His involvement with the arts extended to the stage. In 1977, Alter formed Motley Productions, a theatre company with his FTII friends Shah and Gilani. One of the first plays staged by the company was an acclaimed adaptation of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Alter also performed with the New Delhi theatre group Pierrot’s Troupe.

On stage, Alter had the freedom to exercise more creativity by portraying an array of historical characters: Mirza Ghalib, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sahir Ludhianvi, Bahadur Shah Zafar, KL Saigal, Rabindranath Tagore, Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein, among others.

For a man who once wanted to “be like Rajesh Khanna”, Alter has had to clarify that he is not a foreigner time and again, though that never seemed to come in the way of his illustrious career in theatre. Cinema remained his first love. “I came to Bombay (Mumbai) to become Rajesh Khanna. I didn’t come to act on stage. Theatre isn’t secondary, but my passion lies in films,” Alter said earlier this year.

Play
Tom Alter on Dilip Kumar and Shayari.
We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

Putting the patient first - insights for hospitals to meet customer service expectations

These emerging solutions are a fine balance between technology and the human touch.

As customers become more vocal and assertive of their needs, their expectations are changing across industries. Consequently, customer service has gone from being a hygiene factor to actively influencing the customer’s choice of product or service. This trend is also being seen in the healthcare segment. Today good healthcare service is no longer defined by just qualified doctors and the quality of medical treatment offered. The overall ambience, convenience, hospitality and the warmth and friendliness of staff is becoming a crucial way for hospitals to differentiate themselves.

A study by the Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions in fact indicates that good patient experience is also excellent from a profitability point of view. The study, conducted in the US, analyzed the impact of hospital ratings by patients on overall margins and return on assets. It revealed that hospitals with high patient-reported experience scores have higher profitability. For instance, hospitals with ‘excellent’ consumer assessment scores between 2008 and 2014 had a net margin of 4.7 percent, on average, as compared to just 1.8 percent for hospitals with ‘low’ scores.

This clearly indicates that good customer service in hospitals boosts loyalty and goodwill as well as financial performance. Many healthcare service providers are thus putting their efforts behind: understanding constantly evolving customer expectations, solving long-standing problems in hospital management (such as long check-out times) and proactively offering a better experience by leveraging technology and human interface.

The evolving patient

Healthcare service customers, who comprise both the patient and his or her family and friends, are more exposed today to high standards of service across industries. As a result, hospitals are putting patient care right on top of their priorities. An example of this in action can be seen in the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. In July 2015, the hospital launched a ‘Smart OPD’ system — an integrated mobile health system under which the entire medical ecosystem of the hospital was brought together on a digital app. Patients could use the app to book/reschedule doctor’s appointments and doctors could use it to access a patient’s medical history, write prescriptions and schedule appointments. To further aid the process, IT assistants were provided to help those uncomfortable with technology.

The need for such initiatives and the evolving nature of patient care were among the central themes of the recently concluded Abbott Hospital Leadership Summit. The speakers included pundits from marketing and customer relations along with leaders in the healthcare space.

Among them was the illustrious speaker Larry Hochman, a globally recognised name in customer service. According to Mr. Hochman, who has worked with British Airways and Air Miles, patients are rapidly evolving from passive recipients of treatment to active consumers who are evaluating their overall experience with a hospital on social media and creating a ‘word-of-mouth’ economy. He talks about this in the video below.

Play

As the video says, with social media and other public platforms being available today to share experiences, hospitals need to ensure that every customer walks away with a good experience.

The promise gap

In his address, Mr. Hochman also spoke at length about the ‘promise gap’ — the difference between what a company promises to deliver and what it actually delivers. In the video given below, he explains the concept in detail. As the gap grows wider, the potential for customer dissatisfaction increases.

Play

So how do hospitals differentiate themselves with this evolved set of customers? How do they ensure that the promise gap remains small? “You can create a unique value only through relationships, because that is something that is not manufactured. It is about people, it’s a human thing,” says Mr. Hochman in the video below.

Play

As Mr. Hochman and others in the discussion panel point out, the key to delivering a good customer experience is to instil a culture of empathy and hospitality across the organisation. Whether it is small things like smiling at patients, educating them at every step about their illness or listening to them to understand their fears, every action needs to be geared towards making the customer feel that they made the correct decision by getting treated at that hospital. This is also why, Dr. Nandkumar Jairam, Chairman and Group Medical Director, Columbia Asia, talked about the need for hospitals to train and hire people with soft skills and qualities such as empathy and the ability to listen.

Striking the balance

Bridging the promise gap also involves a balance between technology and the human touch. Dr. Robert Pearl, Executive Director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, who also spoke at the event, wrote about the example of Dr. Devi Shetty’s Narayana Health Hospitals. He writes that their team of surgeons typically performs about 900 procedures a month which is equivalent to what most U.S. university hospitals do in a year. The hospitals employ cutting edge technology and other simple innovations to improve efficiency and patient care.

The insights gained from Narayana’s model show that while technology increases efficiency of processes, what really makes a difference to customers are the human touch-points. As Mr. Hochman says, “Human touch points matter more because there are less and less of them today and are therefore crucial to the whole customer experience.”

Play

By putting customers at the core of their thinking, many hospitals have been able to apply innovative solutions to solve age old problems. For example, Max Healthcare, introduced paramedics on motorcycles to circumvent heavy traffic and respond faster to critical emergencies. While ambulances reach 30 minutes after a call, the motorcycles reach in just 17 minutes. In the first three months, two lives were saved because of this customer-centric innovation.

Hospitals are also looking at data and consumer research to identify consumer pain points. Rajit Mehta, the MD and CEO of Max Healthcare Institute, who was a panelist at the summit, spoke of the importance of data to understand patient needs. His organisation used consumer research to identify three critical areas that needed work - discharge and admission processes for IPD patients and wait-time for OPD patients. To improve wait-time, they incentivised people to book appointments online. They also installed digital kiosks where customers could punch in their details to get an appointment quickly.

These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the Scroll.in marketing team and not by the Scroll.in editorial staff.