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To be hugged by Steven Spielberg

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Last updated on: June 20, 2004 00:44 IST

Catherine Zeta-Jones, Kumar Pallana and Tom Hanks in DreamWorks' The Terminal - 2004.Kumar Pallana cannot think of a good reason why he did it, but there he was, slowly getting up from his seat and hugging Steven Spielberg, who had just walked into the vast room at his DreamWorks office.

Spielberg was there for the final audition for Pallana, who was waiting with the casting director.

"I felt very embarrassed, and I told him, 'Sir, I have not done this before [hugging a stranger]. I am sorry'," says Pallana, the occasional actor, who is 84.

Spielberg smiled and assured Pallana it was not a big deal. The role, which called on Pallana to play an Indian janitor with a difficult past at New York's John F Kennedy airport, is one of the key parts in the film, The Terminal, whose cast is led by Oscar winner Tom Hanks.

Diego Luna, Tom Hanks, Kumar Pallana and Chi McBride in DreamWorks' The Terminal - 2004."I went through two readings," Pallana recollects. "Then Spielberg said, 'I like what you have been doing. Now do it your own way'."

Pallana, who remembered his own struggling days in America, must have looked very natural to Spielberg as he gently read the lines, using the appropriate gestures an Indian would make. 

In a few minutes, Spielberg stopped him and said something like, "Man, this is just what I want." He told Pallana the part of Gupta Rajan was his.

Pallana has had many lives in America as a circus artist, yoga teacher, restaurant owner and an actor mostly seen in the films of filmmaker Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums), whom he befriended while running the Cosmic Cup Coffee Shop with a jazz corner in Austin, Texas, in the 1980s.

But his work in The Terminal is far more significant and often amazing than whatever he has done on screen till now.  Several reviewers, including Claudia Puig in USA Today, have taken note of his scene-stealing juggling act in the film.

Pallana does more than juggling in the film. The actor, who plays a grouchy looking janitor who actually has a mischievous side to him, is seen in about 60 per cent of the film. He has many scenes with Tom Hanks, who plays a foreign visitor to New York trapped at JFK because of red tape that denies him a visa and stops him from returning to his home, a fictitious country called Krakozhia.

Pallana is riveting in the scene in which he tries to convince Hanks why he should not abandon his resolution of getting into the city and fulfilling a personal and sentimental mission. And Pallana, who looks much younger than his 84 years, plays a key role in the climatic scenes in the film. He also garners quite a bit of sympathy when he recalls the reasons that made him leave India and stay back in America forever.

Pallana could even be an older than the age given in many articles. At least a year older. "I am afraid to announce my age," he says ruefully. "I have been told by some casting directors that they had thought of me for certain roles but then they thought I am too old."

Those casting directors ought to see The Terminal and wonder how sprightly Pallana looks and how nimbly he moves around. "Some people in Hollywood may think I am too old," he says wryly. "But some Indian producers who have read about me think that I am a mere juggler. They just don't have roles for me." 

But he did have a part in the independently made Bomb The System, a desi production in the Silicon Valley, directed by Adam Bhala Lough. Nobody seems to have seen that film. 

Those who think of him only as a juggler or a nightclub entertainer haven't obviously seen The Royal Tenenbaums in which he shared many scenes with Oscar-winner Gene Hackman. The critically acclaimed film grossed a decent $100 million worldwide. The Terminal could earn four times that gross. And his headshot from the film appears in full-page advertisements for the film in over 100 newspapers across the country, including The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle. "I hope everyone sees the film, including some of my family members in India," Pallana says.

Pallana dropped out of high school during the intense days of the freedom struggle. He left India, he says because his family was involved in the freedom struggle and he was convinced he could not get a decent job under the British even if he had the qualifications. "I had to make use of some of my God-given talents," he says.  "I was good at juggling, I was good at rope tricks." 

Billing himself as Kumar of India, he came to the States in 1946, where he went on to work Las Vegas nightclubs.
His juggling acts were featured on the Ed Sullivan show. "I had wanted to act in films even in those years," he says. "But I did not know how to go about it."

About none years ago, he got an opportunity to act. His work in three Wes Anderson films -- Bottle Rocket, Rushmore and The Royal  Tenenbaums -- brought him a kind of cult status, with Philadelphia Magazine running a major story on him two years ago, titled The Magnificent Kumar. The secondary title for the story: How a bit player became a cult legend.

His fans remember his few but classic lines from the Anderson films, including "Who, who is dat man?" in Bottle Rocket. In contrast, he has over 15 minutes of lines in The Terminal.

Pallana whose next movie, Romance & Coffee, is directed by well-known actor John Turturro (Secret Window). Yet another Oscar-winner, Susan Sarandon, headlines it. Pallana hopes he will have many more lines in the new film than in the Anderson films. He could not be on the new Anderson film because of conflicting shooting schedules, he says. But to be in an Anderson film even for a few minutes would be a privilege, he adds.

"In each film [by Wes Anderson] Pallana, a short Indian guy with a broad smile and a funny little shuffling walk, is really only given a handful of lines. Mostly, when he's in a scene, his doleful eyes or batty mannerisms do the work," wrote Joey Sweeny in Philadelphia Magazine. "And it's both a testament to how much Anderson's films have been fetishised in the last few years and Pallana's own strangely compelling onscreen mojo that have explained why he's become a minor cult hero."

Pallana attributes his great health to his self-discipline and yoga. "When Spielberg asked me the secret of my health," he says, "I said I do serious yoga, and the mudras I practice require a lot of devotion."

"To many people yoga is like yogurt," he says continuing the interview. "They think it is very easy."

Though Pallana's marriage did not work, he says he kept himself away from turmoil because of his yoga and meditation, and the support of his children, especially daughter Sandhya with whom he lives in Oakland. She gets billing in The Terminal as his personal assistant. "She also likes the film industry and is interested in being a film editor," he says.

There is hardly anyone who doesn't notice Pallana's cherubic smile and over-exuberating, not-to-forget can-do attitude. 

"The genius of Pallana -- the little guy with the huge smile and an outlook on the world so unaffected that there's something deeply spiritual about it -- is that we have heard it before," wrote Sweeney in Philadelphia Magazine. "But the story never really gets old. "

Spielberg was so impressed by some of the postures that Pallana showed that he brought along his father, who is a few years younger than Pallana, to the studio to meet with the actor.

What does he remember most working with Spielberg? The famed director puts his actors at ease, says Pallana, and encourages them to create some of their own screen magic.

"But more important than anything that happened during the shooting," Pallana recalls cheerfully, "is what happened after he told me that I am hired."

Spielberg told him: "Now it is my turn to hug you."

Arthur J Pais