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Memories of Mussoorie

In the short film 'The Black Cat', his last lead role, Tom Alter plays Ruskin Bond

Tom Alter in a still from ‘The Black Cat’.
Tom Alter in a still from ‘The Black Cat’.

In his last lead role in a film, Tom Alter is at home in the hills: haggling with the antique-shop owner over a broomstick, working on the manuscript of his next story on his typewriter in a dressing gown, with a flask of coffee on his desk. The unhurried pace of the writer’s abode in Mussoorie is turned upside down by a cat, a black one. The neighbour, Miss Bellows, who is a bit of a pain, knocks on the door. She claims the cat as hers; and clad in a dark dress and a hat, she seems to resemble it in some strange way. In The Black Cat, a 23-minute short film (available on YouTube) adapted from the Ruskin Bond story of the same name, the late actor plays Bond.

Bond and Alter shared a love for Mussoorie. Alter studied there, and Bond still lives there, and it’s a place that Alter, even after settling in Mumbai, kept going back to. They also shared a friendship that lasted till Alter’s death in September. To Bhargav Saikia, director of The Black Cat, this was one of the factors that made Alter an obvious choice for the character.

Saikia and Alter didn’t want to depict Bond by imitating him but by embodying the essence of the man.

“I approached him because I knew he would understand the world I wanted to create," says Saikia. When they were not shooting during the five days in Uttarakhand last year, Alter drank, sang and caught up with Shernaz Patel, an old friend from his theatre days, who plays Miss Bellows in the film.

On the set, he improvised, adding touches that were uniquely his own. Notice how he slips into a conversation the phrase naya paisa, as antique as the objects in the shop whose owner he is bargaining with. At one point during the shoot, he called up Bond and asked him about his favourite Nelson Eddy numbers. Appropriately, the film begins with Alter at the local library humming lines from an Eddy song as he picks up a dusty book and turns a page when he is disturbed by, well, a cat.

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