The Peculiar Spectacular of Kumar & Co.
Dipak Pallana on untold tales of a guru, father, friend and more
by Santhosh Daniel
The story of Kumar Pallana has no standard measure. It is simultaneously long and short, unusual and cliché, comic and soulful. And for most people, it defies all convention and simply slips through the fingers.
For example, if you were to ask Mickey Mouse, he might say “Kumar of India” was a glorious Spinner of Plates. And that would of course mean nothing to Girdirlal Vallabdas, who may tell you his younger brother, Kumar, was actually a muscular but distracted freedom fighter. Bill Murray, if caught somewhere between the droll and his drawl, may confess that Kumar Pallana is the only actor who can legitimately upstage him, on any stage in life.
In late-2013, Kumar Pallana, yogic vaudevillian scene-stealer, passed away at home in Oakland, California at the age of 94. Steven Spielberg and Danny Glover called with condolences, World Cup fans at Wembley Stadium bowed their heads in requiem. Actor Owen Wilson paid tribute on the Jimmy Kimmel show and Wes Anderson—the director who distilled a lifetime of Kumar Pallana into iconic one-liners—captured the awkward reality, in his quintessential style, of publicly describing the personal loss of a friend.
But like every story written and extracted (from the seminal Believer interview to the delicate elegies penned by cinephiles and fans), the sudden bloom of memorials and tributes that followed Kumar Pallana’s passing only covered a fraction of what his life truly represented. And most, if not all, measured that life as beginning via Anderson’s “discovery” of Pallana as Kumar the Safecracker (a.k.a. Mr. LittleJeans), in the 1996 film Bottle Rocket.
A true history, however, remembers Kumar Pallana as something more. It recalls him as a portrait of disaffected youth in pre-Independence India, and a reminder of America’s penchant for snake-charmers and caricatures of culture. It captures him as an acrobat, entrepreneur and alchemy of experience, mashed together via a wild, curious genius. And, it remembers him as a young man, arriving with empty pockets in 1940s New York, only to wake up years later in Hollywood, in one version of the American Dream.
History remembers that Kumar Pallana is one of our better stories. And, that really, no one can tell that story better than his best friend and son, Dipak. Together, they were a cottage industry, a family-run business that introduced Texans to chai, indies to Indians—and reminded everyone that Kumar Pallana, above all, was a father. An Indian immigrant who raised American children, who was sometimes at odds with his children and who, without his children, may not have become the man he came to be.
And so, many months later, after the public tributes have blended into private memories, I asked Dipak to tell us that story. About the off-screen legend of Kumar Pallana. Kumar the Kid, Kumar and his kids. Kumar & Co.
Santhosh Daniel: There is so much that can be said about your father—and really so much has been said, it’s almost as though he changes size and shape, color, depending on who’s describing him. But the one common thread is that when people talk about Kumar Pallana—“the juggler-plate spinner-acrobat-actor”—they usually skip the part where he was none of those things. The 30+ years from the late-60s to mid-90s, when he lived without spotlights or audience, an entirely different life that began in 1966…
Dipak Pallana: The car accident.
Santhosh Daniel: Can you talk about this?
Dipak Pallana: Yes…. Papa was doing live shows in Los Angeles at the time, and our apartment was in Manhattan. It was the middle of winter and he received a call from his friend telling him that his apartment had burned down. So he drove back and on the way, he had an accident in Kentucky… After the accident, an old [talent] agent-friend of his, a German from Jamaica [who I think he was involved with the Nazis, but that’s another story], who had settled in Fort Worth, Texas, told my father to come stay with him while he recovered from his back injuries. So he did.
Santhosh Daniel: What about you and your mother? You were only two at the time.
Dipak Pallana: We joined him a few months later. And that’s when my mother said she didn’t want to raise a family in show business or be on the road any longer.
Santhosh Daniel: Really. And he didn’t see that coming?
Dipak Pallana: No. She told my father ‘you go do your shows, but I’m staying put’. And of course, this was very difficult for him, to have the life of an entertainer, of travel, and then suddenly end up “settling down” in Fort Worth—where there was little live shows (or at least like the kind he was involved with), going on.
Santhosh Daniel: And so he stopped performing… But he had been in vaudeville for decades, and on television, the Mickey Mouse Club and Captain Kangaroo. It’s all he knew, to be in front of a crowd… How do you think that affected him, especially as a new father, an immigrant, to be suddenly without a career?
Dipak Pallana: This was one of those events that changes trajectory. I was already born, and my sister was on the way. He had no formal education, with all of his experience in show business… But one of the qualities I admire most is that my father was creative and held on to a positive attitude. So, he created his own way, by becoming a yoga teacher.
Santhosh Daniel: A yoga—
Dipak Pallana: Mind you this was in the ‘60s and Texas. Many people considered yoga to be satanic or part of a weird cult. Or as Papa used to say, ‘they don’t know yoga from yogurt’.
Santhosh Daniel: Indeed. Swami Satchitananda got half a million people to do yoga at Woodstock, but I’m guessing there wasn’t the same interest in Fort Worth. Yet somehow your dad managed to hook Texans… Had he ever taught yoga before?
Dipak Pallana: No. I think when he was in elementary school they must have had some basic yoga practices. I recall stories he told me, how after he ran away from home he would spend hours at the gym working out, doing handstands, acrobatics. It was there that he met this businessman who was very knowledgeable about yoga. All informal training, but this is the knowledge he drew on to decide on teaching.
Santhosh Daniel: Your father ran away from home?
Dipak Pallana: Yes… Around 1931, the British shutdown my grandfather’s business in Gujurat, [I think] as punishment for Papa’s brother’s (Girdirlal Vallabdas) involvement in the Independence Movement… Papa quit school because his brother was in prison, and he had to take a food tiffin everyday to the jail house (my grandmother didn’t trust the jailers, there were stories of jail food sprinkled with concrete to slowly kill those incarcerated). There were 10 children, life at home became difficult…
So Papa ran away with a friend around 1935 or 1936. They took a train from Indore to Bombay. They thought they could break into Bollywood by knocking on the front door of the studios. But they couldn’t get past the guard at the gate. After a couple of cold nights, his friend caught the train home. My father decided to stick it out, thinking that once his friend got home and told his story, folks would come look for him.
Santhosh Daniel: And no one did come looking for him, which is how his career begins as a performer.
Dipak Pallana: Right. My grandfather, his father, was very strict and religious. He thought artists were of a lower class. My father wanted to be an artist, actor or musician. A performer… That’s why he ran away, and went first to Bombay. Then he walked to Madras and on to Calcutta, where he began street performing, as an acrobat.
Santhosh Daniel: Sorry—he walked to Madras? From Bombay?
Dipak Pallana: (smiling) I don’t have many details, other than he walked, and occasionally was given a ride on bullock-carts by farmers who were taking their produce to market. As he became more street savvy, he learned from others that you can ride the rails without a ticket, and if you get caught the railroad authorities would only keep you for a couple hours at a station then let you go. He followed the train tracks south to Madras, and then hopped the trains from Madras to Calcutta.
Santhosh Daniel: So, Bombay, Madras and then Calcutta, where he’s a street performer for a few years. And then he heads to the U.S. in—
Dipak Pallana: U.S. in 1947, that was much later. He first sailed to Africa in the late 30s on a small sailboat. My father’s elder brother, Girdirlal, the one involved in with the freedom movement, had to leave the country and was in Kenya. So my father bought passage on a 30’ boat, went from Bombay to Mombasa. Two week journey, 6 passengers, an Arab skipper, African first mate—and my father almost drowned trying to save a woman who fell overboard (the first mate jumped in, saved them both)…
He stayed a few years with his brother, then caught a cargo ship from Durban to South America, and worked his way up from Brazil to New York, landing with only a few dollars…
Until that time, he said he wasn’t a very good performer, and it was only in New York where he really learned his craft—not only tricks, but how to present oneself on stage. He also learned quite a bit from his peers. Mandrake the Magician, Kudabux… I could name others, but don’t think the names would mean much to those listening. Performers, jugglers, dancers, balancers, comedians, etc.. There were only a few Indians in New York at the time, and they were a close community.
Santhosh Daniel: And so when was his first big break [as a stage performer]?
Dipak Pallana: That’s a difficult question. It might have been when he had a long engagement (months) at the Silver Slipper in Vegas, another long engagement in Paris. Or, it could have been TV, when he performed on “You Asked For It”…
But, I think he started getting known after the Silver Slipper. It was famous for its late, late show and entertainers would come to watch him after they performed. That’s where he met the likes of Sammy Davis, Jr. Donald O’Conner, Harry Belafonte, and others.
Santhosh Daniel: And after that is when he began getting extended club engagements and shows, as “Kumar of India”, a juggler, plate spinner, vaudeville act?
Dipak Pallana: Yes, the TV shows, Mickey Mouse, Captain Kangaroo were throughout the 50’s and early 60s. In 1961 he got a 6-month contract in Ankara [Turkey]. And while he was there, he received a telegram about the death of his brother and sister… This is why he went [back] to East Africa and where he met my mother, in 1963. They married in Nairobi, then traveled Europe for a year. In February 1964, they moved to Manhattan, and I was born in April of the same year.
Santhosh Daniel: And then on to Fort Worth, where he reinvented himself, for the sake of family, as a yoga teacher… It’s interesting, because it feels like there is a deliberate, almost epic, magic to all this. I wouldn’t call it luck but then again, he believed—
Dipak Pallana: Luck is like a rock—you have to get up and push it, to get it rolling.
Santhosh Daniel: It’s dharma, I suppose… You think he applied that same philosophy, as a father, to his relationship with you?
Dipak Pallana: He was much older when he had me, I think about 45. So, he was more of a doting grandfather, than a father figure. We had a very close relationship, but he was never a disciplinarian type. My mother was more the “parent”. She made sure my sister and I had structure, for which I’m very thankful.
But as a father, he did have ambitions for me. I think he wanted me to follow in his footsteps like many fathers do. I have pictures of him teaching me handstands when I was five years old. One of his goals was for me to do a one-hand handstand. Never got there. I still need two hands (smiling).
Santhosh Daniel: You’ve also said that he used to push you to perform, to get on stage and push that “luck”, and that this was traumatic…
Dipak Pallana: I was into magic tricks. My father strongly encouraged me to perform, sometimes magic at kids parties or on stage as his assistant when he occasionally performed his juggling act at local events or parties. I was introverted so… Yes.
Santhosh Daniel: I guess it’s a familiar story, [Indian] parents driving their kids to succeed. If not vaudeville, the alternative might be a Spelling Bee. Who knows.
Dipak Pallana: Sure. I think many children reject the profession of their parents and as a young adult, I didn’t take pride in what my parents did (my mother also taught yoga, with my dad, and she still teaches in Dallas; practicing for 47 years). I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I knew I didn’t want to perform or be a yoga instructor.
But Papa encouraged me to do my own thing. It had something to do with the caste he was from: Vaisyas, the business caste. He was proud of the fact that none of his forefathers worked for others. I think that was very important to him and partly motivated him to do his own thing. He wanted the same for me.
Santhosh Daniel: So, then, how did he feel when you dropped out of college, to do your ‘own thing’?
Dipak Pallana: I wasn’t ready for college when I graduated from high school. I was suspended for poor grades, and I was nervous to tell my father. He was in Kenya at the time, but he didn’t seem bothered at all. In fact he told me to come travel with him, and really, I shouldn’t have been surprised.
So, I quit school (Denton Texas) in 1985, traveled to London and then joined my father in Kenya. I eventually split off from him, went back to Dallas, got a job, got relocated to Houston, then New York. And then, moved to Fort Lauderdale [Florida] where I reconnected with my dad, and we got involved in the wholesale fish business—which turned out to be a scam. So, after a few years of “real life” experience, I decided I needed to go back and finish college.
Santhosh Daniel: And then you go from college to small business owner, and being the catalyst for your father’s debut in Hollywood. Tell us about that.
Dipak Pallana: When I graduated from college I didn’t have any plans, or any idea of what I wanted to do to earn a living. So, I decided to travel to India and explore. I took out another school loan and purchased a one-way ticket to Bombay, and ended up in an ashram in Rishikesh. The place was heavy into structure and discipline, and I spent an intensive four months training in meditation, yoga and philosophy, especially readings of the Vedas, Upanishads, Bhagavad Gita…
Back in Dallas, my father was in his early seventies and broke financially. He had sold and financed a commercial building (an old house in a commercial area) in the mid 1980’s and counted on the payments as his retirement. But the S&L crisis hit Texas and the real estate market crashed. He ended up foreclosing and taking the property back with little savings. Unfortunately, the building was not cared for several years. It had squatters, the copper pipes were stolen, windows were broken and rooms vandalized…
After I returned from India, I envisioned fixing the property and starting a business, a bookstore-coffee shop, with a limited menu of food. I’d seen something similar in London but really, it was decision influenced by my time in India and study of the Gita. In particular, a passage where Krishna advises Arjuna that he must do his duty, no matter the outcome. I think this thought changed the course of my life–the notion of duty to family and community—and opening the Cosmic Cup was a way to aid my father, do my duty, as well as give myself a purpose and livelihood.
Santhosh Daniel: The Cosmic Cup. This is where director Wes Anderson more-or-less “discovers” you and your father…
Dipak Pallana: One never knows, but I think it would have been highly unlikely we would have met Wes [Anderson] and Owen [Wilson] if it hadn’t been for the Cosmic Cup. Wes was living with Owen, and Owen would come visit regularly—not to buy stuff, but to play backgammon with me. We quickly became friends. My dad and I lived above the shop, Papa would wander down and meet people… I don’t think Wes or Owen was, or is, into yoga (smiling), so it was the Cosmic Cup that made it happen, yes.
Santhosh Daniel: Speaking of that… In all those years between performing on stage and then, performing on screen, your father (and mother) actually continued to run one of the first successful yoga practices in the U.S., correct?
Dipak Pallana: Yes, he had a yoga studio in the late 60’s in Dallas. I’m not sure of other parts of the country, but I bet it was the first or one of the first yoga teachers in the South. My father was a man ahead of his time (smiling).
Santhosh Daniel: He definitely was one-of-a-kind—which is what we discovered in Bottle Rocket, Wes Anderson’s first film. You and your father are both in that, and also in Anderson’s next film, Rushmore (in fact, you’re one of the first faces audiences see in that film, Max Fischer’s math teacher with the ‘hardest geometry problem in the world’). But most importantly, your dad gets to become a performer again.
Dipak Pallana: Yes, you know, I told Owen years ago that he and Wes gave my father a new lease on life, because I think before Bottle Rocket he thought of himself as getting old. Juggling is a very physical activity, acting is less physical—but he was a natural. Bottle Rocket showed him an alternative route to performing again. My sister and I were very happy for him, and I became his manager…
Santhosh Daniel: And how did your mother feel about it?
Dipak Pallana: My parents divorced in 1979, which was really unheard of in the Indian community at that time. But I give my mother a lot of credit for having the courage to go through with it. Indians, many of whom she considered friends, ostracized her for doing so. Neither my father, nor my mother was happy with the marriage, and I don’t think my father had the courage my mother had. Strange to think Papa had the courage to do handstands at the edge of a building, but he didn’t have the emotional courage to divorce my mother. That said, I think my mother got a kick out of the fact that my dad got back into show business in his 70s.
Santhosh Daniel: I suppose it says something about them as individuals—that they both had the courage do what made them happy. It’s not something everyone can do, or say they did. In that frame, do you think your father ever had any regrets about his life?
Dipak Pallana: He had some regrets. For example, there was the time the son of Nanji Kalidas Mehta, the Indian industrialist-philanthropist, visited him in New York and offered him a parking lot in Manhattan. He refused because he didn’t want to be tied down (smiling). But overall, he was a person who lived in the moment, didn’t plan for the future. I think he lived a very full life and was pleased with it, although I think he was lonely and longed for companionship.
Santhosh Daniel: It must have surprised you, then, when your father passed away, the emotional tributes from so many “friends” who barely knew him—or rather, only knew him via the various characters he played in films…
Dipak Pallana: I knew he had a following, but to what extent, that surprised me. Danny Glover, Steven Spielberg, John Turturro. Wes and Owen, of course. I was very surprised by the New York Times obituary, and even more so to the moment of silence at Wembley Stadium during a football match.
Santhosh Daniel: Well, I think that for many people he was someone we could identify with, in any capacity, on-screen. He was “Uncle” and always had a regular job, played the regular guy—the Everyman, for immigrants and otherwise. And he was a first, as an Indian actor, insomuch that his ethnicity did not restrict him.
Dipak Pallana: Yes, that’s really true. He was given roles that had nothing to do with being South Asian (the exception would be The Terminal, but it was relevant to the story there). I don’t know if these have made an impact on American perception of South Asians, but I like to think so… Papa wasn’t a man of convention, he lived life on his own terms. And that’s what people saw on screen: something universal and unique.
Santhosh Daniel: So… How has it been for you, this last year, after your father passed away?
Dipak Pallana: Since my father was in his 90s, I expected his passing would happen one day soon. But one can never really prepare for the loss of a loved one. He and I had spent so much time together, and since we lived together, his absence has been felt in a big way. A friend of mine told me, we will always feel the loss of our loved ones, but its the memories that help fill up that hole. I find that true. It has been seven months since his passing, and the sorrow is less frequent. But sometimes the grieving catches you by surprise. These days I embrace the grief when it comes. These moments are the times I feel closest to him.
Santhosh Daniel: And, I suppose, this is how you keep him alive. He really did have a wonderful life that makes for an amazing legacy.
Dipak Pallana: Do what you love and do your best. Be positive, have confidence and most importantly—don’t think too much, and act. That was his philosophy and I think it’s a great one. Because even in difficult times, he held a positive outlook, believed in his resourcefulness and was a person of action. I think this contributed to why he had a successful career as a performer, and a person—because he was a firm believer in action, and valued creativity. He believed creativity was life.
WATCH: Dipak Pallana on the legendary off-screen habits and routines of Kumar Pallana
The Peculiar Spectacular of Kumar & Co. is part of America the Other: a series on the known and unknown of what you know you know © Santhosh Daniel