Being his father's son
What does it mean to be white and desi? Late actor Tom Alter's YouTuber son, who is also an established sports journalist, breaks it down one video at a time
A Hindi-speaking, white man is an anomaly. The last person, we remember, who made it look so easy on stage and screen, was late actor Tom Alter. It was then but natural that when the co-writers of the mini-series Afsos, which released on Amazon Prime in February, were looking at casting a white man for the role of Dr Goldfish, whose grasp over Hindi is a defining twist in the plot, they would be reminded of the veteran. "After searching a lot, when we did not get anything [a person who fit the bill], we thought Tom Alter would have been great for this role," Sourav Ghosh, who has co-written the Gulshan Devaiah-starrer mini-series, had later shared. "We decided to check if Tom Alter has any family." A Google search led them to his son Jamie Alter, who not known to many, had enjoyed a popular stint as funnyman Tinku Jiya, an anchor on a news satire show, Fake It India.
"Namaskar doston, main hoon apne ghar waalo ka lalla aur aapke jigar ka challa, Tinku Jiya," the opening lines, which Jamie rattled effortlessly on his show, won the writers over. "It was extremely overwhelming. Someone had seen me in a role that I had never envisioned myself in. But it had come at a perfect time," says Jamie, 39, over the phone from Noida.
Jamie, unlike most children who grew up in homes where acting was bread and butter, never took a shine to it. His father, lived two lives every day, he says. "It used to be surreal to see him at home, as this man, who drinks tea, eats mangoes and toast, watches cricket and plays games with us. And then, as soon as he was out, he'd put a wig on, wear a white suit, and hold a machine gun."
"I actually had a great time, joining dad on the outdoor shoots, visiting him on set and attending those movie premieres and screenings. But, as I hit my teenage years, I grappled with whether I should be doing what my father was doing, or try something different." Jamie found his passion in sports journalism, and continued at it for nearly 15 years, while his father, followed his success from the side-lines. "Dad, I think, was happier that I got into journalism. It was something he did, too. In fact, he had been associated with mid-day, ever since the newspaper launched, and balanced a lot of sports writing with his acting in the 1980s and early '90s."
Jamie Alter has been a journalist for 15 years
Even until the last few months before he passed away in September 2017, Jamie remembers his father taking a keen interest in his writing. "Once, when he was to come to Delhi for work, he called, saying, 'I don't have the time to read online, but will you get me the print-outs of all your articles when we meet.' He was so happy the first time, I interviewed Rahul Dravid."
Jamie's stint as Tinku Jiya—the name has been lifted from a Bollywood music number—came about in 2017, when he was a digital sports editor with a newspaper. "During one of our very dull, daily edit meetings, my colleague Neeraj Badhwar, a humourist, suddenly had a brainwave and asked if I would play a character that he had in mind, for his show. He told me, 'You are the white guy, speaking in Hindi. It's disruptive as an idea. People are going to catch on, and love the show." As Badhwar predicted, Tinku Jiya really took off. Alter, who happened to see just two shows that featured his son, was impressed. "He said this [my character] was real fun, and that I should keep doing it. Dad was always so encouraging and supportive. I still remember the number of actors who'd show up at our house, requesting five minutes of dad's time… he'd give them five hours."
Tinku Jiya took a break, after Jamie switched jobs. But the demand from his followers continued. "I went back to Neeraj, after I started freelancing last year, and we revived the character," he says.
Last year, Jamie started his own YouTube channel, which currently has 85.2K subscribers.Here, he shares videos that include everything from comedy sketches, to cricket discussions, stories of his father, and his white identity. "There are a lot of misconceptions around my identity. I have also been asked if I am an albino. Some think my father was British or that he came here as a hippie. That was not the case at all." Alter was the son of American missionaries. His grandfather moved to India in the early 1900s. "I attempt to answer those questions through these videos," he says. "I also enjoy humour. I did an episode on what it means to be travelling abroad with an Indian passport, and being white. That got me seven lakh views."
For now, Jamie is enjoying this phase, where he is trying just about everything that's coming his way. But, he says, when it comes to acting, the legacy his father left behind, will be unmatched. Some of his fondest memories are of watching him in the Doordarshan show, Jugalbandi, which also featured Radha Seth and Girish Karnad. He even tweeted to DD National last week, asking if they would consider a re-run of the show, during the national lockdown. "As actor, I don't have the drive that my father did. It is humbling that people have such nice things to say about my work. But, we both did very different things. I make YouTube videos, and dad was a great stage actor. Afsos, which is possibly my only body of acting work, literally fell onto my lap. Nothing came easily for dad. He worked very hard for it."
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