Kumar Pallana is blessed with an expressive face that conveys an unlikely but endearing blend of curmudgeonly crankiness and a yogi's serenity.
By Lisa Tsering
India-West, June 18, 2004
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Aishwarya who? This summer, India's biggest export to Hollywood isn't a beauty queen, but an 85-year-old juggler from Madhya Pradesh.
Kumar Pallana steals the show from Oscar winners Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones in The Terminal, a bittersweet romantic comedy directed by Steven Spielberg that opens June 18.
As Gupta Rajan, a surly janitor at New York's JFK Airport, Pallana takes up serious screen time (by my estimate, he even has more lines than Zeta-Jones). Who knows? By this time next week, he just might become a household name.
"When I was young, I needed a job," said Pallana, with a shake of the head and a feigned scowl. "Now that I'm a senior, these Hollywood people are saying, `You're fantastic!'"
The Terminal is a poignant tale about Viktor Navorski (Hanks), a middle-aged visitor from Eastern Europe who finds himself stranded at JFK when his country is paralyzed in a bloody coup. Unauthorized to enter the United States (which will no longer honor the country's passports) and unable to return home because the borders are sealed, Viktor sets up camp in the airport's international departure lounge and waits.
As days turn into weeks and months, Viktor develops an understanding of this strange place that most of us would merely speed through without a second thought.
He also becomes attached to the airport employees -- hard-working men and women from around the world who are largely invisible to the thousands of harried travelers who stream around them.
The first time we meet Gupta, he's pushing a garbage cart at a leisurely pace. Viktor, who suspects that some of his precious food vouchers have ended up in the trash, starts pawing through Gupta's cart, and is greeted with an angry tirade.
The scene is one of three scenes that Spielberg and casting director Debra Zane used to audition actors for a role that Pallana says he was willing to do just about anything to get.
Last August, a casting notice went out describing the role of Gupta as "East Indian, in his 70s. Gupta works as a custodian in the JFK International Terminal. He is crude, rude and thoroughly irascible."
Pallana, whose Hollywood credits include the Drew Barrymore comedy The Duplex and Wes Anderson's cult favorites The Royal Tenenbaums, Bottle Rocket and Rushmore, knew he was up against hundreds of actors from India, the U.K and the U.S. in competition for the role.
"Someone called from New York and told me to send my photo to Debra Zane in Los Angeles," Pallana told India-West at an interview at his home June 13. "I waited two weeks, and got no reply. So I thought I'd go and visit her in person, without an appointment." Aided by a friend who was able to get him a copy of the script, Pallana rehearsed for two days straight before showing up. Amazingly, Zane let him audition. "I told Debra, `I'm not a genius. I can't memorize lines very well, and I'm not too sharp. But I feel that an actor must have the feeling. Without the feeling, I can't do it. Give me a chance.'"
The first time, things went badly, he recalled. But Zane let him read the scene again -- and later, let him take a stab at a more important scene later in the film, where Gupta explains why he left India and came to work as an airport janitor. Another audition, this time in front of a camera, and the Kumar Pallana magic started to shine.
As it turned out, Spielberg was watching from an adjoining room, and decided to come in to meet Pallana in person.
"It was like a miracle," the actor recalled. "When he walks in, I just get up and hug him! I've never done that. I said, `I'm sorry, sir, I never do this,' but he didn't mind. He was wise enough."
Spielberg sat down to talk with Pallana and explained that he loved India, and had been there five times. He asked which part of the country he was born in, and how he came to learn the art of juggling. "He made me feel comfortable," said Pallana. "Most of the time, after an audition, they just say, `Thank you. We'll let you know.'"
Then, Spielberg set up the camera again and asked him, "Do you mind if we do the scene one more time?" and again a second time and a third time.
Then came the turning point. The Oscar-winning filmmaker told Pallana, "Just do it in your own style. If you forget the lines, it's okay. Just do it your own way."
Pallana did the scene one final time.
"He said, `Okay. You've got the job! Now it's my turn to hug you,'" said Pallana with a grin.
He is blessed with an expressive face that conveys an unlikely but endearing blend of curmudgeonly crankiness and a yogi's serenity. Whether flashing his patented pearly white grin, demonstrating a yoga mudra (hand position) or shaking his fists in frustration, Pallana conveys a vitality and honesty that seems perfectly at home in front of a camera.
As shooting of The Terminal continued, on a vast set erected in the desert town of Palmdale, Calif., Spielberg gradually expanded the role of Gupta from background color to a pivotal place in the story -- and even let Pallana star in a scene that included not only juggling, but plate-spinning to boot.
In the climax of the film, Gupta rushes out onto the tarmac of the airport in a snowstorm, into the path of a jumbo jet. The scene was shot in Montreal in the dead of winter, and Pallana says his daughter, Sandhya, who was accompanying him, pleaded with him not to do it. "She said `No, papa, it's slippery out there, and it's so cold.'"
Spielberg offered to bring in a double. "He said, `If you don't want to do it, it's okay,'" said Pallana.
"I said, `This is nothing! I used to go on top of buildings and do headstands!'"
Reviews for the film itself are largely positive; Variety calls Pallana's performance "scene-stealing," the Village Voice dubs his characterization "memorably offensive," and Fox News calls him "remarkable."
Paradoxically, while Pallana has been drinking lassis with Gwyneth Paltrow, showing Cher a few new mudras and comparing tan lines with Catherine Zeta-Jones, he's remained a near unknown on the desi circuit.
"I've been an entertainer for 60 years, and still get no respect from the Indian community," Pallana told this reporter in a previous interview (I-W, Dec. 21, 2001). "They only pay attention to Bollywood stars, and they think people like me are circus performers or something."
Pallana will be seen next in the NBC sitcom pilot "Nearly Nirvana" (formerly "Nevermind Nirvana"), where he'll play Mr. Singh, a silent butler. The show is being directed by David Schwimmer ("Friends"). On the big screen, you'll see him in the musical Romance and Cigarettes, from actor-turned-director John Turturro: Pallana's costars are Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Susan Sarandon and Steve Buscemi.
His biggest fans, believe it or not, are teenagers and young adults, who love to parrot his lines from his early films with Wes Anderson, who befriended Pallana when Anderson was a young film student and Pallana was running a bohemian coffee shop in Dallas called "The Cosmic Cup."
The professionalism and dedication of artists like Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg has stuck with Pallana, but what impressed him even more was their humility and humanity. "Steven is like family to me. Tom is extraordinary. He used to buy lottery tickets for all the cast and crew -- 250 of us. To work with these kinds of people is wonderful. It shows your capacity, what you can do."