Kumar Pallana - Wes Anderson's Best Kept Secret

October 09, 2014


Maybe they shouldn't have let him build a real campfire on stage they agreed - it is, after all, clearly a safety hazard. Last year he tried to raise piranhas so maybe, in retrospect, this was an improvement another voice chimed in. 

But, if we're looking for a succinct summary of the school kid's Vietnam-set play, an amateur dramatic equivalent of a Michael Bay production, perhaps Mr Littlejeans could provide the best summary? The diminutive Indian grounds keeper, clearly taken aback with the emotional enormity of Max Fischer's latest creation, eloquently conjures the words everyone had struggled to communicate but felt in their hearts.



Sagely, albeit with a heavy accent, Mr Littlejeans speaks the sentence which will cement his place in cinema history: "Best play ever, Man."    

In a film starring Bill Murray, in a role which revitalised his already legendary career, and a debuting Jason Schwartzmann, it is perhaps the unknown actor, Kumar Pallana, who steals the show. 

Throughout  Rushmore's running time, the madcap tale threatens to regularly spin into sheer lunacy; the calm centre at the storm is a diminutive Indian who offers straight talking, dry delivery in the face of the most eccentric scenarios imaginable. 

But who exactly was the man behind Mr. Littlejeans?

Plate spinner, juggler, vaudevillian, sword swallower, singer and stuntman, Kumar Pallana made an unexpected, and entirely unplanned, breakthrough as a character actor in the films of Wes Anderson whilst in his late eighties, years after he'd retired from being an active performer.  Their meeting was serendipitous and movie history was made as an accident of fate. 

Pallana's former life, as an on-stage dare devil in 1930s India, seems at odds with the placid, eccentric figure he portrayed onscreen. Indeed, when Anderson discovered him, Kumar Pallana had shied away from any form of traditional showmanship for years - a car accident in the 1960s had almost cost him his life and a combination of injury, age, and his wife's demands forced him to slow down.   

Instead, Pallana planed to teach yoga and meditation above his son's Texas coffee shop, the Cosmic Cup,  whilst enjoying the latter stages of life in peace.

Like all the best laid plans, however, things did not go quite as planned.

Fortunately for film-goers everywhere, two regular customers of the Cosmic Cup were a brace of young, budding film professionals - Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson frequented the establishment whilst working on their debut film Bottle Rocket.  Their attentions often wandered, intrigued as they were by the charismatic Indian gentleman who seemed to be on the property as often as they were. 

A part was quickly crafted for Pallana in Anderson and Wilson's screenplay and, from there, the elderly Indian found himself as a recurring cast member in Anderson's films - his cinematic appearances were unlike anything else seen in American movies before or since.

What was most remarkable about Pallana's performances, perhaps, was the sense that he seemed more surprised than anyone he had suddenly found himself on the big screen - his dry understated deliveries almost constituted anti-acting. Indeed, in his movie debut, Bottle Rocket, there are large sections of the movie in which Pallana seems lost, seemingly oblivious to the fact he is being filmed - his detached, laconic style encapsulates perfectly the world of Wes Anderson. 

In Pallana's film career, his characters seem to be slight variants on the role he debuted in Bottle Rocket. In Rushmore, his iconic role of Mr Littlejeans set the stage perfectly for the performance he is best known for - The Royal Tenenbaums' Pagoda. The loyal sidekick of the title character, Pallana had now been promoted to sharing screen time with the legendary Gene Hackman. 

Indeed, it is Pagoda's actions which draw one of Hackman's most famous retorts from his entire career: "That's the last time you put a knife in me, ya hear?"

Away from his collaborations with Wes Anderson, Pallana was able to continue his fairytale second career and even work with Steven Spielberg. Whilst Tom Hanks may have starred in The Terminal, it was Pallana who walked away with the plaudits - he even got to show off some of his vaudevillian skills in front of a global audience.

Before his death, at the age of 94, Pallana had managed to carve a niche for himself as a hugely talented performer often cast in supporting roles. Here, he shined and brought a certain unspeakable magical whimsy to the movies.

 






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