Kumar Pallana is best known for his indelible performances in the three Wes Anderson-Owen Wilson movies: as Kumar the faltering safecracker in Bottle Rocket; as the enigmatic, ecstatic Mr. Littlejeans in Rushmore; and as Pagoda, the family butler in The Royal Tenenbaums.
But this is only the most recent step in an entertainment career that has spanned almost seventy years. Born in India in 1918, Pallana began as a juggler and singer, performing for small Indian communities throughout Africa. In 1946 he took his act to America, eventually appearing on several television shows, including The Mickey Mouse Show and Captain Kangaroo. Pallana also toured nightclubs in Las Vegas, Paris and Beirut, combining magic, rope tricks, comedy and plate-spinning under the name “Kumar of India.”
The interviewer had come upon Mr. Pallana’s phone number some time before, but was not sure what to do with it. The best proposal so far involved inviting him out to see Shanghai Knights, the new Owen Wilson-Jackie Chan movie. That idea had some promise, but then this interview was suggested and that seemed a little healthier.
The interview takes place on a Saturday morning in the neat, spare Oakland house where Pallana lives with his daughter Sandhya. (His son Dipak, who has also appeared in all three Anderson-Wilson movies, lives nearby.) On the bookshelf: What’s New in Magic, Central America on a Shoestring, Moby-Dick, How to Play the New Backgammon, Locke: An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Gorilla Games. Still light on his feet at age eighty-four, Pallana sets out two mugs of chai and two slices of pound cake. When the interviewer, who had skipped breakfast, ate the cake too quickly, another slice immediately appeared.
Due to space constraints, the printed interview does not include a terrific story about a faked suicide in San Juan.
THE BELIEVER: What was one of your first big performances?
KUMAR PALLANA: Long Beach, 1955, ‘57. There used to be a very good television program called You Asked For It. They got a letter saying that somebody kisses snakes. [Laughs.] Some people wrote that about me, I don’t know. So, this program, they said, “Well, we’d like to have you.”
So they have a big studio, and they build very high, way up fifty feet or a hundred feet high, they build up a little platform. And I’m up there with four bottles and two chairs. One chair here and another chair there and two legs on and two off.
BLVR: And you stand on top?
KP: And then I do a handstand.
BLVR: On the chair! Where are the bottles? You’re holding the bottles?
BLVR: You balance the chair on the bottles?
KP: Yeah. You go up and lift the other chair and then you do the handstand. Then you drop the chair and then you come down and you pick up one bottle and now the chair is on three bottles. Then you go up again and pick up the chair and you hold it out, all the way out on the side.
In America they have a lot of very good actors. But all the circuses here, the Ringling Brothers and all those kind, most people are the Europeans or the Asians. Here you can get by because it is a different culture. You can have a nice tuxedo, a bow tie. You can get by.
BLVR: If you have a nice bow tie, that’s all you need.
KP: Yeah. [Laughs.]
BLVR: How did you get started doing all these tricks?
KP: I started when I was a small kid. You learn from other artists. Like you’re doing, you come to me. I was always looking, because you had to make a living. You couldn’t just keep juggling. You had to get ideas for something else. I thought I wanted to become a singer. But my parents were against it. They did not let me.
BLVR: They didn’t like you doing this?
KP: No, they didn’t. My father said, “Why do you go to the gymnasium to work out?” He was a businessman. He wanted me to do something for the business. Impossible.
BLVR: Because you just weren’t interested?
KP: The problem was, India was marching for freedom. Gandhi was just coming up, the Congress party was ten, twenty years old, and they wanted to kick the British out. And they have the different parties. There were especially two: one with the violence, one with the non-violence. The violent people were underground. My brother was involved with the freedom fighters, with the violence. My brother was involved and we didn’t know and then all those people were captured and we find out that they are freedom fighters. And they were violent. They used violence because in those days the Raja and Maharaja were puppets. They were using people like slavery and then all the army controlled the land.
And so I realized that I wanted to do something like this, too, for my country. I wanted to become a gymnast, and then I wanted to become a singer so I could sing the freedom song. And it didn’t work out. [Laughs.] It didn’t work out because then I realized that if you want to fight or whatever you want to do, you have to learn to survive. And my father, he lost everything.
BLVR: Because of your brother?
KP: Because of my brother. He goes everyday to court so he doesn’t go for his job. They captured our house because we are freedom fighters. So, we were kicked out from the home and we were really struggling and then I realized that I had to do something.
BLVR: And your brother?
KP: He winds up in Africa in 1936 and meanwhile I was the next son, but what can I do? I don’t have education. Without the education you could not do things, you just had the dream. And that dream can be broken anytime. So, I start to work out in the gymnasium. My father was against it, so I moved to Bombay and did a lot of hard work. I’m singing and I’m juggling and I’m doing the swords. My brother said, “Why not come to Africa?” So I get excited but I didn’t know Africa was not like Bombay and New York. It was a jungle, like South Dakota, North Dakota. When I get there, I realize, “Oh, my God. This is nothing, nothing but jungle this whole town.”
BLVR: Was that your first time out of India?
KP: First time, 1939. I went to my brother; he was working in the sugar factory. Nothing around there. Nothing but all the sugarcane and coffee and small factories down there. Miles and miles—nothing. I visited him and I thought, “Biggest mistake I’ve ever done.” And then I got malaria.
BLVR: Eventually you settled down in Texas, right? How did you meet Wes Anderson and Owen Wilson?
KP: Wes Anderson came into my place in Dallas; I used to have upstairs a yoga center, and downstairs a coffee shop, Cosmic Cup. And our Cosmic Cup was special because my son is really smart—he is a philosopher. He said, “Papa, I want to have something different.” So, we have the chess night Monday. Just bring your own chess and we hook up the table to play. People heard. So many people come. They hang out on Mondays; that’s how it started. Then I start a meditation.
BLVR: In the coffee shop?
KP: Upstairs. That building was a yoga and health center. And I was the first one, ahead of the time, to have the health food. For the Indian community, I used to have all kinds: nuts, spices that I used to get from India and Africa, and then I had downstairs a bookstore. Spiritual books, specialty books, religion and the Kabala—nobody knows in Texas—cowboy country! And nobody knows what the yoga and yogurt are.
But I like show business. So my son started the Cosmic Cup coffee shop and he wanted to have health food juice bar. And I told him I said, “My son, I have news for you. How many carrot juice you drink?” I’m asking him, “How many can you do?”
BLVR: Not very many.
KP: No. You know this carrot juice is good. But you’d rather have the tea or chocolate. So, I told him and I said, “No, no, no, it couldn’t survive.” In the United States we start vegetarian, start this chai, we introduced here the mango lassi. So, this place becomes more and more and more. And Wes Anderson starts coming because we have the chess night. On Tuesday or Wednesday we have the jazz music. All the musicians I know, I see practicing at home, I say, “Why don’t you come and practice with us? Let the people know that you are making a noise.” Then we had people like you, the storytellers. They bring their own group, four or five friends. They both came, Owen and Wes. They just finished college, the both of them. They heard that this is the place, every night something different. Wes used to come up and take a lot of pictures. Small camera, you know. And he became a really good friend. We all are, all the brothers.
BLVR: All the Wilsons.
KP: 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.
BLVR: Did they know what they were doing?
KP: Everybody was new, everybody was new. Some of them were very nervous. I say, “Man, stop shaking!” And today I’m very proud of them and very happy. They make a very good success. Especially Wes make very good. Still the same honest person. Hard worker. No petty ego there. And same thing with Owen. All the brothers are good friends. Luke, also. Luke, I talk with, he says, “Come, man, come, I am shooting a movie!” [Laughs.] But I have my own life.
BLVR: Do you have a favorite of the three movies?
KP: Well, this was a very good, successful movie, The Royal Tenenbaums, and of course I got a good response from that. People ask me, “Oh, you’ve been a good comic?” What’s the comedy? I never did anything, they never gave me a line—what are you talking about? I wish they had given me something so that I could show that I could do the comedy! [Laughs.]
BLVR: You did get to do that scene with the handstand in the background.
KP: It was very nice of Wes Anderson. He knows my work. He said, “What do you want to do?” and I said, “Whatever you want to do.” He said, “You want to do the headstand?” and I said, “Yes.” And I did the headstand, and Gene Hackman, he said, “Look at this guy! Look at this!”
BLVR: Gene Hackman can’t do a headstand, I bet.
KP: Yeah. [Laughs.]
BLVR: Have you been in touch with them about any new movies?
KP: I think even with the success of these boys, they don’t get excited; they take their time, especially Wes Anderson. I was with him last month, two months ago. He said, “I have a new part for you.” He wants to put my son in the next movie. And he wants to put me in a small part. I don’t care. If they don’t put me in, I don’t care. I got my share—I’m happy.
BLVR: Do you know what this one is about, the next movie?
KP: I don’t ask. Many writers, they have ideas, and if they talk somebody copies. Maybe that happens, so I don’t ask. If I ask, I ask what’s my part. Just that: my part. Nothing else. He said he want me to be a money exchanger, international money.
No matter. Whatever comes, I take it. I think that’s the best way to do it. Some people, some actors, they get excited. I’m an old guy. 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.
BLVR: Was there any time that you were worried about your career, that you thought it wasn’t going to work out?
KP: Sure, I’m always worried. This country or any, in this twentieth century, you don’t know what is coming tomorrow. In the human life, I think the worry starts from suspense: You don’t know. If you know, you can adjust yourself. But when you don’t know—then hanging. [Mimes noose around neck.]
BLVR: Has your yoga helped with that?
KP: Well, I don’t know… I think the memory helps more. Because you get through so many times, good parts and great times and bad times, and you have the memory there. I think the young age is a stupid age, I really think. Just stupid. So many times I say, “Why did I do that?” Now I think my health is important. I have shoulder pains, I get tired quick. But I still do entertaining. When the movie [The Royal Tenenbaums] was finished, I entertained everybody.
BLVR: With the plates? What else did you do?
KP: Juggling. They were surprised that this old guy…
BLVR: That you could still do it.
KP: That’s why Wes Anderson said, “I never have seen anybody like him.”
BLVR: Do you still practice that?
KP: Yeah, I do.
BLVR: Just right here, you’ll just set up the plates…
KP: Well, the plate, I just see it, I never touch it.
BLVR: For that you don’t even need to practice—you just know it?
KP: If I have to do it. My hand works because of many years when I was doing fourteen, fifteen.
BLVR: Do you do the yoga still?
KP: Yes and no. I do it, but I try to meditate more, concentrate on breathing. I do light exercise because when you are old your muscles are dead. It’s nature. Look at the tree: big tree dries out. Same thing with your muscles inside, your liver inside, your bones inside. That’s where the people make the mistake, when they are old and they try to lift up more weight—they’re cracking. No good for ligaments.
So, the best way is to do a lot of breathing and very light exercise. And you do more. Old people go and say, “Well, my leg is hurting,” and the doctor says, “Well, go round ten times this way, ten times that way.” Ten times aren’t going to help much.
BLVR: A hundred times?
KP: Yeah, because it’s light. Just keep moving. You’d be surprised. That’s what I do. Ten years back or something I had a place teaching, and I said just jiggle—just think like you make a zero. You make a front, down, up, sideways, this way, big zero, two zero. Or with the knee. [Wiggles knee in circle.] With your head. [Rotates head.] With your tummy make a zero. [Shakes hips.]
BLVR: And that’s all you need?
KP: You can make with anything you want. You can make it with your eyes. [Rolls eyes in circles.] Just make the zero. But you’d be surprised—there are many people like me, in the old country and this country, nobody knows them and nobody gives them a chance.
BLVR: That’s how it always is.
KP: People survive somehow. Look at Christ’s period up to today. The world is always going to war; we just forgot the many wars before. The Roman empire, the British empire. Through 18th century, 17th century, going over time, 12th century, 5th century, people are fighting. Because the people have the ego. As long as they have the power and as long as they have the business, they want the war. That’s why you see the Vietnam war and those wars and that small war. They wanted the damn fucking war.
So, you don’t blame Arabs, you don’t blame Americans. You blame the politics. You don’t blame anybody else. People are people, I find with everybody. I don’t know you—I’m sitting with you for an hour. Why? Because we have a common understanding. If you can make a common understanding, then you can have peace, you can have trust. But the problem is there within the society. All the master’s degrees, all the doctors, they got their own damn fucking club where they all get together. And they won’t let anybody else in. So, they’re making this circle, and this circle has to be broken. Let’s make one big circle and everyone can come. People can come, we don’t care.