At 85, when most people think of slowing down, Kumar Pallana feels it’s just the beginning. He has been a juggler in a circus, a yoga guru, and the first Indian to own a Indian grocery store in Texas. But acting in Steven Spielberg’s ‘The Terminal’ with Tom Hanks is like a dream come true.
The Oscar winning filmmaker Spielberg, sometime in August sent out a casting notice for the role of Gupta. The role characterized a 70 years old east Indian, working as a janitor in the John F. Kennedy International Terminal who is rude, outspoken and funny. “I got a call from New York and I send my photo to casting director Debra Zane in Los Angeles for the role,” says Kumar, but got no reply as I was in competition against hundreds of actors from India, U.K and the U.S.
Pallana, a juggler from Madhaya Pradesh was born with the burning desire for acting. His Hollywood credits include Wes Anderson’s Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, and Bottle Rocket, and The Duplex with Drew Barrymore.
After a wait of two weeks, Kumar resisting all hesitations showed up at Debra’s office without any prior appointment. “They liked me because of my dauntless behavior,” he added. With the support of a friend who managed to get him a copy of the script, Pallana rehearsed his lines and quite amazingly, Zane agreed for an audition.
In the beginning, he recalled things were not in his favor, he had to request Debra for several retakes. But Kumar’s magic started when he took a leap into an intense scene in the film, where ‘Gupta’ explains to Tom Hanks why he left India and landed up working as a janitor at the airport.
It worked wonders, Steven Spielberg was actually watching his performance from another room, and was thrilled to give him a shot. “I like acting but am not very good with names, I did not even know who Spielberg was,” he says, “when he came up to me I just said I am a simple man and not a genius and cannot memorize all those long lines, but I have the feeling,” he said, “Steven was thus pleased with my honesty.”
It was like a miracle for Kumar, when Steven Spielberg sat next to him and explained his love for India. Steven told Kumar that he has visited India five times and the love kept growing. Kumar feeling more comfortable was asked for a couple of retakes. After a couple of shots Spielberg patiently asked the actor to do the scene his own way. The award winning director told Pallana not to worry about the lines, just like any fairy tale, Kumar did it one final time, and then came the “Okay” and a hug from Steven.
Pallana has been juggling with entertainment for sixty years. Ironically, while renowned Hollywood actor Tom Hanks calls him a splendid actor, desis hardly know him. “The Indian community thinks that I am a circus clown and give me no importance,” says Kumar. He groans at the Bollywood star crazed society, with frustration, but rightly questions, “Why can’t the Indian film industry be original?”
Talking further about his stint with Steven Spielberg he said that as the shooting progressed, the multi-talented director recognized his caliber and gradually the role of Gupta swelled. From a minor role, his role was extended to a mature place in the story. In fact his circus charms were utilized in some scenes of the movie.
The very energetic young old man of Hollywood just blew all minds in the climax of Spielberg’s ‘The Terminal’, where he has to rush out in front of a huge aircraft in a snowstorm. His daughter Sandhaya was almost in tears pleading him not to do it. “Even Spielberg offered me a stunt double, they don’t care about money, they said my life was important,” says the actor. But according to Kumar it was just child’s play. “That was nothing, I am used to more risky stuff like balancing on a rope and acts with wild animals,” he added.
As much as his role, his life’s experiences are not only thrilling but also breathtaking. Kumar’s parents wanted him to pursue studies in a conventional way but the rebellious Pallana always desired offbeat knowledge. Music, art, jugglery, yoga and of course acting were his main interests.
His brother was a freedom fighter and has accompanied the chivalrous Bhagat Singh in many trials. In the heat of the freedom movement, Kumar was forced to leave his country in 1939. To support his family he then relocated to Kenya and South Africa where he performed at various community festivals and birthday parties.
After India’s independence, the Pearl S. Buck East West program invited Pallana to perform in New York, and soon with his mastery of magical skills he created a one-man show, which included juggling, spinning, acts on the rope, tricks and magic. Very soon he crossed the globe and went to perform in London, Paris, Madrid, and Casablanca.
Later Kumar settled down in Dallas, Texas where he started his first yoga studio and a café called ‘The Cosmic Cup’. Soon the center became a hot spot for artists like Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson, who were students at the University of Texas. The young filmmakers soon spotted his talents and roped him into their artistic projects.
“Age has never bothered me,” says Kumar while taking a five hour drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles, just to meet his long time Texas buddy, Yogi Patel, who wanted to greet him for his success. “Pallana is a man of tremendous potentials, we both have come a long way, while I played the flute, Kumar sang,” says Yogi with a grin.
The love and honor that he got from artists like Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks stupefied the ‘Kumar of India’, as he is most fondly called.
“I am shocked to see how young kids leave their homes for just one break in cinema, but my only advise to them is to focus on a particular talent, it is not all about good looks,” adds Pallana.