Kumar Pallana, Who Went From Yoga to Film, Dies at 94
Touchstone Pictures, via Photofest
By MARGALIT FOX
Published: October 15, 2013
Kumar Pallana, an Indian plate spinner turned Texas yoga instructor turned — in his late 70s and long beyond — sought-after character actor in films by Wes Anderson, Steven Spielberg and others, died on Thursday at his home in Oakland, Calif. He was 94.
His son, Dipak, confirmed the death.
Mr. Pallana, who had lived in the United States since the 1940s, was first seen on screen as an extra in American westerns of the early 1950s, playing, as he later described it, “a different sort of Indian.”
He also 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.
He played Las Vegas, where his shows were attended by the likes of Sammy Davis Jr. and Harry Belafonte. In the 1950s and ’60s, he performed on television shows, including “Captain Kangaroo” and “The Mickey Mouse Club,” before repairing to Dallas and a life of teaching yoga.
There, three decades later, Mr. Pallana was discovered by Mr. Anderson and Owen Wilson, not long out of college and collaborating on the screenplay of their first film, “Bottle Rocket.”
“He had a certain wise serenity and tremendous charisma,” Mr. Anderson wrote in an e-mail message to The Times on Monday. “But he was also inclined to do rope tricks and laugh wildly, hysterically, at extreme length. And like everybody else, we just loved him instantly. We had never met anyone even remotely like him in any respect.”
Elfin and white-haired, Mr. Pallana made his true cinematic debut in the feature-length version of “Bottle Rocket,” released in 1996. (The film had originated two years earlier as a 13-minute short.) Appearing alongside Mr. Wilson and his brother Luke, he played a member of a gang of hapless thieves.
He went on to appear in Mr. Anderson’s pictures “Rushmore” (1998), as the school caretaker Mr. Littlejeans; “The Royal Tenenbaums” (2001), as Pagoda, Gene Hackman’s curmudgeonly valet; and “The Darjeeling Limited” (2007), filmed in India, as a passenger on the title train.
Though Mr. Pallana’s roles were typically small, his screen presence was anything but: his lines, delivered in understated Indian-inflected tones, crackled with cantankerous roguery. Critics agreed that he quietly stole every scene he was in.
In 2004, The Los Angeles Times described him as “possessing perhaps the greatest deadpan expression since Buster Keaton.”
Mr. Pallana’s credits include more than a dozen pictures by other directors, notably “The Terminal” (2004), by Mr. Spielberg. In that film, he played the dyspeptic airport janitor Gupta, who likes nothing so much as seeing travelers slip on his freshly mopped floors.
“This,” Gupta declares, “is the only fun I have.”
The third of nine children, Kumar Vallabhdas Pallana was born in Indore, in central India, on Dec. 23, 1918, the son of a prosperous automobile dealer. As a boy, he dreamed of a performing career, though his parents tried to steer him toward more respectable pursuits.
Then in 1931, Kumar’s older brother, who was active in the struggle for Indian independence, was arrested and jailed for several years. The British also seized the family’s home and the elder Mr. Pallana’s business, thrusting them into vastly reduced circumstances.
Kumar left school at about 13 and soon afterward lighted out for Bombay, thinking he could become a Bollywood film star simply by walking through the studio gates. At the gates, however, he was repeatedly turned away because of his age.
He wound up in Calcutta, where he trained as an acrobat, and for the next few years he traveled India by foot and bicycle as an itinerant performer. In the mid-1930s he joined his brother, newly released from jail, in Africa, where he honed his act in performances across the continent.
Mr. Pallana arrived in the United States in 1946 and spent the next 20 years touring until his wife put her foot down and the family settled in Texas. There, he started a yoga studio.
“Texas is called cowboy country,” Mr. Pallana told the American newspaper India Abroad in 2004. “Nobody knew what yoga and yogurt were, at least 30 years ago.”
In 1992, Dipak Pallana opened a cafe, Cosmic Cup, on the ground floor of his father’s studio. Its regular customers included Mr. Anderson and Owen Wilson, and before long a star was born.
Mr. Pallana’s marriage to Ranjana Jethwa ended in divorce. Besides his son, who has also had small roles in Mr. Anderson’s pictures, he is survived by a daughter, Sandhya Pallana, and a grandson.
His other films include “Duplex” (2003), directed by Danny DeVito and starring Ben Stiller; “Romance & Cigarettes” (2005), directed by John Turturro and starring James Gandolfini; and “10 Items or Less” (2006), directed by Brad Silberling and starring Morgan Freeman.
In a 2003 interview with The Believer, the literary magazine founded by Dave Eggers, Mr. Pallana set forth his philosophy of life in words that might have come straight from one of Mr. Anderson’s films:
“I have seen the people who hustle and bustle, and they are already gone, at a young age,” he said. “I’m an old guy. I’ve been doing this a long time. And I don’t hustle and I don’t bustle.”