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Remembering Kumar Pallana, the scene-stealer of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Terminal

The actor, who would have turned 100 today (he was born on 23 December 1918), acted in around 30 films, but began working only in his late 70s.

Pallana in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Sonal Pandya

For most of his short film career, actor Kumar Pallana didn’t have much screen time, but he had a face one could never forget. He was born on 23 December 1918 in Indore, Madhya Pradesh as the third of nine children.

Pallana would leave his hometown far behind as he travelled to Bombay (now Mumbai), where he couldn’t even get through a film studio’s gate. He then went to Calcutta before moving to a new continent, Africa. He travelled to Kenya in East Africa and then to South Africa, before finally settling down in the US during the 1940s.

While in Africa, Pallana had already begun performing shows as a juggler and singer in 1939, and became an extra in Hollywood films like Broken Arrow (1950) and Viva Zapata! (1952). According to his obituary in The New York Times, he “spent decades on the vaudeville circuit as Kumar of India, spinning plates (as many as 16 at a time, some of them on sticks) and performing feats of dexterity that included plucking a handkerchief off the ground with his teeth while riding a bicycle”.

Pallana with the cast of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)

Pallana also appeared on popular American television shows of the time like Captain Kangaroo and The Mickey Mouse Club during the 1950s and 1960s, and even took his one-man act to Paris, London, Madrid, Casablanca and Las Vegas. Eventually, he retired to a quiet life in Dallas Texas where he and his son, Dipak, opened and ran a yoga and health center called Cosmic Cup.

That’s where he ran into an upcoming filmmaker named Wes Anderson, who dropped by on chess nights at the Cosmic Cup. In an online interview with The Believer, Pallana shared that actor-writer Owen Wilson and Anderson used to frequent the place.

"We play cards and all the bridge and poker and everything. We became very good friends, and they told me, they said, 'We are writing.' They wanted to shoot the movie, the Bottle Rocket. And I didn’t pay much attention to what kind of movie it was. They go to Los Angeles and finally they come and they say, 'Yeah, we are shooting the movie. And here is your part.' And that’s where it started."

So, at age 78, Pallana finally had a significant role in a film. He played Kumar, a member of the heist gang whose responsibility is to crack the safe. He famously botches the big moment.

He would go on to star in three more Anderson films including Rushmore (1998), The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), and The Darjeeling Limited (2007). By then, the diminutive old man was being recognized more often for his cinematic outings.

His other famous co-stars were Ben Stiller from Duplex (2003), James Gandolfini from Romance & Cigarettes (2005), and Morgan Freeman from 10 Items Or Less (2006). But besides his cult films with Anderson, he acted alongside Tom Hanks in Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal (2004) where he played a curmudgeonly janitor Gupta. He also got a chance to show off his juggling skills in the film.

As he grew older, he got busier. In a profile piece, the Los Angeles Times wrote that Pallana had "perhaps the greatest deadpan expression since Buster Keaton" at his disposal. He even had small cameos in two Indian productions, Karma, Confessions And Holi (2009), starring Sushmita Sen and the Hindi film Anjaana Anjaani (2010) with Priyanka Chopra and Ranbir Kapoor.

Before his death, Pallana acted in several independent films in Milwaukee; the filmmakers who forged a special connection with him released a documentary, KUMAR:MKE, about his time there in 2015.

He died at his California home on 10 October 2013, aged 94. In the same 2003 interview with The Believer, Pallana had said, "I’ve been doing this a long time. And I don’t hustle and I don’t bustle. So sometimes you’re behind but that’s okay. Your peace of mind is more important. I have seen the people who hustle and bustle, and they are already gone, at a young age. They could have enjoyed life."

This was a man who knew how to enjoy life.