MUMBAI—She is prone to easy guffaws. Pooja Kumar, after winning the title of Miss India USA, started her career as an American actress, producer and model. She was also the host for the International Miss World Competition, which was broadcast live in over 50 countries.
Pooja’s fortunes would have been better with respect to Indian films after she was selected among the 20 finalists (10 being male) of a talent contest called “Star Track” among 60000 applicants. “Amitabh Bachchan-sir’s corporation was handling the contestants, and there were supposed to give us many opportunities in television and films, but with the company landing in trouble, nothing came of it,” she rues. But Pooja did an acting course with Roshan Taneja, went back to America, and broke the mold there by breaking into cinema.
She has starred in Hollywood feature films such as “Man on a Ledge,” “Brawl in Cell Block 99,” “Bollywood Hero, “ and many cross-over films, and began her Indian film career in the delayed 2000 Tamil film “Kadhal Rojavee” but went unnoticed. She won an award in USA for “Flavors,” but her Hindi debut in a small role in “Anjaana Anjaani” (2010) also was not noticed. During her earlier days, she also flirted with television as a host of a Zee TV show and worked with Channel [V].
Her big Indian chance came opposite actor Kamal Haasan in the film “Vishwaroopam” (2013), which was released in Hindi as “Vishwaroop.” That film got her “Uttama Villain” (also with Kamal Haasan) and a few more South films. Today, she is set to reprise her role as Dr. Nirupama, the nuclear oncologist, in “Vishwaroopam 2 / Vishwaroop 2.”
“In the first part, I didn’t know what my husband does!” she grinned. “Here, I discover that he is a spy for India. The villains in Part 1 have moved to London. So I too go there, joining forces with my husband.”
And a nuclear oncologist CAN be a certified scuba diver; she laughed when I ask how she is doing action in the film. “Most of my action sequences are underwater, and I trained for it,” she said with the air of someone scoring a point.
Among the Indian-Americans, Pooja, thanks to her genes and upbringing, has remained on terra firma vis-à-vis her background. “My father is from Dehra Dun and mom from Lucknow, so we never spoke in English at home like most Indian American kids do!” she pointed out. “I worked a lot on Hindi with three ‘masterjis’ and every year, three months would be spent in India with my maternal grandmother in Lucknow!”
A turning point was that she trained as an Indian classical dancer as well. She learned Kathak with Pt. Birju Maharaj and Omprakash Misra, Bharatanaytam with Aasia Lakshman, while Kuchipudi was learned more back home in Missouri.
Always interested in the arts, Pooja, who would love to work much more in India now, was into plays and musicals from the time “I was in Class Five,” she said. While growing up, she played the guy, not Catherine, in a school play, “The Taming Of The Shrew.”
How did she get Kamal Haasan to sign her? “Kamal-sir saw my work online in my film ‘Drawing With Chalk,’” she replied. “He located my manager, an American, and called him. The manager came and told me that there was this guy from India called Kamal Haasan or something who wanted me for a film! I said, ‘What!!!’. So he asked, ‘Is he of any importance?’ And I said, “Yes, we should talk!’ she guffawed
When she contacted the actor on Skype, he simply said, “Hi, I am Kamal Haasan.” “Now who does not know that?” asked Pooja with a guffaw again. He then asked her if she knew of his work and she said, yes, she had watched almost all his movies. He thanked her, and the conversation ended there!
“I did not know whether it would lead anywhere at all, but five days later, I was on a plane to Chennai!” preened Pooja. “I did not know what my role would be, or anything about the film. If you ask me why that was, I will reply that no one questions Steven Spielberg when he offers you a film! In a worst-case scenario, I thought, I would meet a legend, talk with him, and come back.”
But Pooja was handed over a script, written in Roman phonetics, of three pages of dialogues in Tamil. “The very next day I was shooting, after memorizing gibberish basically, because Tamil has NOTHING to do even remotely with Hindi. I got through as Kamal-sir had explained the character, scene and emotions. “
One question: with globalization, does she feel as an Indian-American that people are losing identity to become a kind of homogenous mix? “Thanks to the Internet and the social media, it is inevitable!” she replied, “There is so much information and we get influenced so easily. We are realizing we are global people, which is good. The sad part is that our Indianness is going to be depleted, and the chances of a young Indian marrying another Indian is very rare.”
As for Indian cinema, the only area where Pooja feels that Indian films are “not yet there” is in the realm of VFX and Sound Design. “Otherwise, Indian cinema has great technician greats and a history of great stories.”
Pooja would like her career to come full circle and work with Amitabh Bachchan in a film, and with Ranbir Kapoor and filmmaker Shoojit Sircar as well, of whose films she is a big fan. We heard her rave about Mohammed Rafi in her last conversation, so has she learned music alongside acting and dance? “No way, I cannot sing!” she guffawed one last time. “I am just a fan of the old singing legends!”