Best known for his memorable performances in the Wes Anderson canon, Kumar Pallana has become a cult celebrity in the span of a few short years. The Cult of Kumar began with his role as Kumar the Safecracker in Anderson's first directing effort, "Bottle Rocket" (1996). Though it was his first film, Pallana has been in show business for many years. Born in 1919 in India, Pallana began his career as a juggler and magician, learning the tricks of the trade as a child from other artists. Pallana also wanted to become a singer, but his parents wouldn't allow it. His father, a businessman, wanted his son to follow in his footsteps. But as fate would have it, the family's fortunes turned for the worse, leaving his parents no choice but to accept Pallana's pursuit of his dreams.
Growing up in British-occupied India, a young man had one of two choices of opposition: violence and non-violence. Unbeknownst to the family, Pallana's brother was involved with a group of underground freedom fighters-his brother chose violence. Because of his brother's involvement with the group, his father lost his business-mainly because he spent day after day in court instead of at his job. Meanwhile, the family home was confiscated, forcing young Pallana-who was without education-to make a decision. He chose the non-violent path: showbiz.
Pallana moved to Bombay where he trained at the gymnasium to improve his juggling and 'doing the swords'. His outlaw brother, who fled to Africa, convinced Pallana to join him. Upon arrival in 1939, Pallana was confronted with a jungle full of sugarcane, coffee and small factories. To make matters worse, he contracted malaria and quickly realized he made the biggest mistake of his life. In 1946, Pallana took his act to America where he performed magic, rope tricks and plate-spinning on such classic television shows as "The Ed Sullivan Show" (CBS, 1948-1971), "The Mickey Mouse Show" (ABC, 1955-1959) and "Captain Kangaroo" (CBS, 1955-1985). His act-billed as "Kumar of India"-also toured nightclubs the world over, including Las Vegas, Paris and Beirut.
As it happens to all variety acts, Pallana's career wound down and he settled into a normal life-sort of. In 1980, Pallana opened a combination yoga center and coffee shop, called the Cosmic Cup, in Dallas-not exactly the epicenter of Indian culture. On the advice of his son, Pallana had a different theme every night in the coffee shop. Monday was Chess Night, Tuesday and Wednesday showcased local jazz, and so on. Soon the Cosmic Cup became the hip place to be in Dallas. Chess Night was a favorite of Anderson and his college pals, brothers Luke and Owen Wilson. It was only a matter of time before the nascent filmmakers became fast friends with the charismatic Pallana.
Then one day Anderson surprised Pallana: he had a part for him in a movie he was shooting. Pallana, always one to take life in stride, agreed to do it and the film, "Bottle Rocket," became an independent classic. In Anderson's next movie, the droll "Rushmore" (1998), Pallana played Mr. LittleJeans, the overexcited and mysterious school groundskeeper. In "The Royal Tenenbaums" (2001), Pallana played Pagoda, butler to the eccentric and dysfunctional Tenenbaum family. Meanwhile, Pallana ventured into roles outside of Anderon's world, playing the owner of an Indian restaurant in "Duplex" (2003). Pallana also starred in the pilot episode of "Nearly Nirvana" (NBC, 2004- ), which has been considered for a midseason pickup. Finally, Pallana appeared in the Steven Spielberg-Tom Hanks collaboration, "The Terminal" (2004), a romantic drama set in the confines of Kennedy Airport. As the suspicious janitor Gupta Rajan, Pallana is a delightful comic presence who's unique energy enlivens just about every scene he's in, although the actor was the occassional beneficiary of Spielberg's over-generosity when the director relied on him to carry several too-thin scenes.