The Many Magical Lives of Kumar Pallana

The one-man variety show was born to be a star — but it took perfecting death-defying stunts, a chance encounter with Owen Wilson and Wes Anderson, and seven decades before Hollywood took notice.

Ishani Nath

June 14, 2022

The Many Magical Lives of Kumar Pallana
Kumar Pallana, Catherine Zeta-Jones, and Tom Hanks in 'The Terminal' (IMDB)

There is more to the airport janitor in JFK than meets the eye. 

At first, he appears to be a curmudgeonly old Indian man who takes particular delight in watching stressed-out passengers slip and fall on the recently mopped floors. But seated on hard red airport chairs, Gupta tells Viktor Navorski (Tom Hanks) why he left his family in India and came to the U.S. Without giving too much away, it involved some illegal activity. When asked if he’s afraid the U.S. will deport him, he shakes his head. 

“They have no reason to notice a man like me,” he says, smiling. In the next scene of Steven Spielberg’s The Terminal, Gupta, played by Kumar Pallana, manages to pull focus from the film’s biggest stars, Tom Hanks and Catherine Zeta-Jones, juggling multicolored rings and spinning plates in ways that seem to defy physics. On-screen or off, Kumar Pallana had a penchant for subverting expectations, and, unlike Gupta, he was determined to get noticed.  Whether he was an ineffective safe cracker in Bottle Rocket or a butler doing handstands in The Royal Tenenbaums, Kumar’s dry wit and magnetic charm allowed him to steal scenes from A-listers ranging from Gene Hackman to Tom Hanks. Steven Spielberg called him a blessing. Owen Wilson sang his praises on Jimmy Kimmel Live! Wes Anderson described him as “a natural performer.” But what is perhaps the most fitting description of Kumar Pallana — a man who performed in Vegas nightclubs, faced death more than once, and taught yoga to white Texans during his 94-year-long life — came from his son, Dipak: “He was the most unconventional person I’ve known.” Kumar Pallana's life was filled with magic.