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Open Chest/Cover Story: Pooja Kumar

Pooja Kumar

A twist of fate and destiny changes…

Actress Pooja Kumar, while studying for a degree in politics, decided to audition for a dance number at a local beauty pageant but was convinced to compete instead.
Upon doing so, she was amazed at being crowned Miss India USA in 1995. This spontaneous win further ignited her passion to perform, so armed with the crown and a strong foundation as a classically trained dancer, Pooja applied for an acting tutelage with the Amitabh Bachchan Corporation amongst 60,000 hopefuls. Making the cut, she began an experience that she says was so gruelling, it set her up with a strong sense of discipline, a focused mindset and oodles of confidence to take on the world of entertainment.

Since then, she has acted in over ten feature films, numerous television shows and several major ad campaigns including Pearl Vision, Dodge, Verizon and Pepsi.

To date, she has been recognized by the Screen Actors Guild with the Emerging Actor Award for her starring role in Flavours, played an assistant district attorney opposite Kal Penn in Law and Order, and just recently starred opposite Chris Kattan, Keanu Reeves and Neha Dhupia in the hit mini TV series, Bollywood Hero.

How does a politics major decide to enter the Miss India USA contest and win no less?
Entering the competition was actually by chance. I’m a dancer first and foremost, and I was asked to perform at the Miss India USA pageant in Chicago, which is a regional competition. The organizers said that they’d like me to compete, to which I said, “Never done pageants before” and they said, “Well we have a few girls, we’d like some more and it’d be fun.” So, I said “You know, why not?” I competed and to my surprise, I won. That led me to the national competition which I also won, so I guess it was destiny.

Then you went on to acting. How did that come about?
I always did musicals while growing up, but never thought of (acting) as a profession until after winning the pageants. This is when I went to this contest put out by the Amitabh Bachchan Corporation, where there were a staggering 60,000 applicants, out of which I was one of the lucky ones selected. When this happened, I knew it was my destiny to act.

In retrospect, how do you feel your career has benefited from this experience?
It created the groundwork for honing my acting, dancing and vocal skill set. Also, going through that sort of vigorous sort of routine taught me how to be adaptable in any performance-based situation. I’m really lucky to have this wonderful east-west performance skill set because it gives me the added advantage to be able to work in both Bollywood and Hollywood in a convincing manner. I go back to that experience in my head all the time to enable me to extract what I learned, to help me with any of the projects that I do going forward.

Pooja Kumar
So with this added to your portfolio, you joined the millions of hopefuls on the audition roster on both sides of the Atlantic which is one of the most difficult ways of being discovered - being pit up against an army of aspiring actors. What did you do to stand out, and how effective was it for you to land jobs?
A lot of actors just go to auditions where the role is a certain type of role because their skill strength lies in a specific type of acting, be it comedy, character roles etc., so their chances for being picked are far less than mine because the groundwork and foundation I have harnessed in terms of learning and honing the skills necessary to be a great performer and an adaptable actor, have given me the added advantage of being able to go after a more diverse pool of roles in two major movie making industries (Bollywood and Hollywood), as well as being able to play a mainstream or cultural role convincingly.

Clearly this has worked for you because you have to date, quite the enviable portfolio having bagged ad campaigns with Pepsi, Dodge and Verizon, as well as a supporting role in the hit TV series, Law & Order, and just recently, a principle role in the IFC’s Channel’s mini TV series, Bollywood Hero, opposite a stellar cast that includes Chris Kattan, Keau Reeves and Neha Dupia. Before we talk about your experience with Bollywood Hero, I’ve got to ask you about Kal Penn since you’ve worked with him. It almost seems a shame, after such a string of successful movies (The Whitecastle series, The Namesake, Superman Returns), that he decided to trade being an actor for working in the White House under the Obama administration. What’s your take on this?
Entering the government and/or working for the public is something that I think we all need to do to some extent. I think Kal’s position has the potential to do great things for South Asian actors and for our contribution to the Arts in general. There really isn’t any government funding or a forum for South Asian actors, so I hope he will leverage his position to create some of these things for us. I think it’s extraordinary that he made this decision to take up a post with the Obama Administration, thus retiring as an actor, but then again, what way better to retire than at your peak?

How do you think that him being in the position that he’s in has the potential to help the South Asian cause?
There’s a number of different things he could do, whether it’s developing a government-backed South Asian Arts Association, where this association can create some funds or projects, or backing large cultural events so that they can be of more value to both the community and to the country itself. At the very least, he’s going to be out there as a public figure, creating faith in the public, which in turn will help lobbying the government for more cultural support. The fact that he’s there, and he’s present, and he has the ability to at least try and change something, we should support that fully.

Then maybe we’d have more projects like Bollywood Hero!
Oh, I hope so!

How did you get the romantic lead opposite Chris Kattan in Bollywood Hero?
Oh my god, destiny! I grew up watching Chris Kattan and I think he has this infectious personality and is a brilliant comedian and actor. I got to know about the role through a friend of mine, Anjula Acharia-Bath who got wind of it and recommended my name to the producers. I happened to be in India when they were casting and I was going to take a flight that night back to the States when she called to say “You’ve gotta stay and check this project out - this is for you.” So I went for the audition.

And they loved you, of course!
Well, yeah. [Laughs.] I think they did. But I loved the script and as soon as they told me that Chris Kattan was attached to it, as well as a mainstream TV network (IFC), the fact that it was going to be premiered, be shot in India AND it was a comedy, I mean it was a dream come true for me because I’ve always wanted to work on an international project and now I’m able to say I have. As a consequence, I am a member of this extraordinary fraternity of actors like Aishwarya Rai has who worked in Pink Panther 2, Om Puri who worked in East Is East, and Ben Kingsley who worked in Gandhi.

So what was it like working with big name actors from both sides of the Atlantic, who collaborated in this unique project?
It was a dream! Working with all these amazing actors really tests your skills and also makes them better. So when you work with them, you automatically step it up and take it to another level, not only for yourself but for the whole team. As any actor, you wish every day that you could be fortunate enough to work in a project that you can both be proud of, but also with a cast that is well established. This was definitely that project for me, and I thank God every day that I got to experience this. I couldn’t have asked for anything else. I think there’s someone up above who likes me at the moment.

You got some great reviews on the project as well. How’d you feel about that?
You know, reviews are something where it’s totally out of your hand so it feels great that your work is being appreciated. With this series, we’ve done something revolutionary for American television by having one part of an interracial couple being South Asian on the small screen.

Pooja Kumar
Your most critically acclaimed project to date was the independent feature, Flavours, where you were recognized with the Screen Actors Guild Award for ‘Best Emerging Actor’, for your portrayal of Rachna.What a moment for your scrapbook. How did you feel when you found out that you’d bagged this award?

It was so unexpected. When I heard that I was getting this award, I felt really humbled that so early on in my career – this was only my second feature, my performance would warrant an award. I really believe that skill, discipline, teamwork and sincere performance pay off in the final analysis.

You seem to be able to pick the right project to be involved in. What’s your process of due diligence?
I always go by the script. If the script is hands-down something I can identify with, I’m on it in seconds. I also put a lot of stock in who the director, producer and cast is because beyond that, you really cannot predict whether a movie is going to be successful. But you know, as far as success is concerned, there are so many other factors that determine the success of a movie, like who distributes it, how many markets it is released in, what film festivals it is picked up by, etcetera. So it’s really difficult for an actor to see the success of the film. My rule of thumb is to have a solid script and an experienced team behind it. If you believe you do, then you’re golden.

And I guess that’s really served you well, because to date, you’ve been in a whopping 10+ feature films, a slew of TV dramas, and an enviable roster of national ad campaigns.You are not longer and aspiring actress but one that’s ready to hit the big time.And being labeled as the “South Asian Angelina Jolie” no less, you must be feeling quite the queen bee right now.
[Laughs]. When someone first told me this, I was like “You have got to be kidding.” I mean, she’s absolutely gorgeous as a woman and a grade A talent to boot, so to be put in the same league as her is, wow!

You’re well on your way to the big time, lady. What do you have up your sleeve for 2010? Share!
I’m producing an English language Bollywood romantic comedy, which we’re shooting in New York. We’ve got Padma Khanna involved in it who did many movies with Amitabh Bachan during the seventies. Then I’ve got two other films which are going to be coming out. One’s called Drawing With Chalk, and it’s about an Indian female American musician and her story about how she has to balance her career and family. It’s going to premiere as the opening night film at the Idaho Film Festival. I think that’s amazing as far as an independent film for this sort of caliber is concerned. The second film is called Bollywood Beats, which stars Lillete Dubey, Sarita Joshi, Sachin Bhatt, and Mehul Shah. The film is about an Indian guy who aspires to be a dancer and has to break the news to his family. We’ve got a lot of retro Bollywood dancing going on in there so it’s a really fun film to watch out for year.

Oh wow… how exciting!
Isn’t it just?

What’s your dream role and why?
I would really love to do an Indian epic that has never been done before. I mean, we’ve got so many amazing stories, because we come from a culture full of stories, history and culture. That would be my dream role – if there’s anyone out there who’s doing a project like that, TELL ME, I’m in!

So, what actors - male and female, would you most want to work with in Hollywood and in Bollywood and why?
Male actor in Hollywood… can I choose two?

You can. You greedy women you! [Laughs.]
[Laughs]. Yes, I am greedy! One is Leonardo Di Caprio because I think he is absolutely brilliant. Just one look in his eyes betrays a thousand emotions. The reason I’d love to work with him is because he makes you feel like he is only talking to you, which means he’s done his job. I think I’ll be able to learn so much from him. The second one is Johnny Depp. Another brilliant actor who gives 200% to every role that he does. The reason I’d love to work with him is because he’s a university of learning. In Bollywood, I absolutely love Hrithik Roshan. I think he’s an amazing actor and dancer, and he has so much screen presence. I think Akshaye Khanna is also a very underrated actor. If you see his career of films, he’s been able to do such a variety of work which many actors aren’t able to do in Bollywood. He’s a true actor.

Have you met him?
Not yet.

Okay, when you meet him, just let him know that there’s a publisher in North America that is madly in love with him.
[Laughs] You too! Okay, I will.

Pooja Kumar
And how about females – Hollywood and Bollywood
Hollywood would have to be Meryl Streep. She’s absolutely brilliant. Every character she plays, she is able to find the core and then communicate it to the audience, and only few actors have the ability to do this time and time again. In Bollywood, I would have to say Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone, Aishwarya Rai and Kareena Kapoor, because Bollywood is such a difficult industry. So hat’s off to all these women who are able to hold their own in such a male-controlled industry, and be successful over and over again.

If you were to pick one actor’s career—male or female, that you’d like to emulate, who’s would it be, and why?
Meryl Streep because she’s been able to handle her career and her personal life in such a fantastic manner. She`s a rare breed because she`s been able to give her all to both her career and her family at the same time. Also, she only ever plays roles she wants to play and gets her worth – I`d love to be in that position one day.

Do you have a secret Hollywood or Bollywood crush?
That would have to be Harrison Ford and Pierce Brosnan

You love your men in twos huh. One not enough doll?

Tell me why.
Because they exude manliness yet at the same time, have this emotional side, which as females, we love. In Bollywood, my secret crush would have to be Abhishek Bachchan because he has been able to carve his own unique position in the industry, even with the huge pressure of being a legend’s son (Amitabh Bachchan) so I really do appreciate that about him. I guess my secret crushes are not secrets anymore! [Laughs.]

One piece of advice for struggling actresses, who like you, have no industry insider to jumpstart their careers. What would that one piece of advice be looking back at your career so far?
I would definitely emphasize learning the craft and keep on learning it, even if you have one or two months off. Keep going to a class to keep up on your skill repertoire because the competition out there is brutal. Don’t think too much about whom may be better than you because at the end of the day, you cannot control what other people do, only what you do. And you’ll always be on top of your game.

Like most from our generation, you’ve been quite in touch with your South Asianess. Coming from a strong immigrant Indian family, tell me about some of the things you’re glad you’ve learnt from your cultural heritage and why?
First and foremost, understanding where you came from like your cultural heritage, festivals and customs is very important because knowing where you came from helps you determine where you’re going. It also helps you put the many, sometimes conflicting parts of your jigsaw puzzle in place because all aspects of who we are as humans, determine our destiny and help us forge a life that is both fulfilling for ourselves and fulfilling to those we touch. Appreciate your family, something we don’t realize the importance of until later in life because regardless of what happens in our lives, family provides constant strength and resources that we can pool from. Our culture, emphasizing so much on the family unit , gives us an upper hand in terms of facing life’s challenges because you’re never really alone when having to face, understand and overcome them. Sometimes, life can be difficult so when those hard times come along, a strong, willing and able support system is a necessity.

Absolutely. And just off the back of what you say here, there’s many discussions and deliberations on the potential of our children’s generation being diluted, even being devoid of the culture of their heritage — our heritage. I mean, it’s this synonymous story with that of other geographically migrated cultures, like that of the Jews, Hispanics and Italians, also very strong cultures. Do you feel that our culture is headed down the same proverbial path? And if so, how do you feel about how that may affect our culture in the future from an arts perspective because the arts draw equally from life experiences as it does from culture?
The world is becoming much smaller because of globalization. Even in India, families are no longer living in an extended family environment anymore as kids are moving out, finding their own apartments and leading their own lives. I’d be surprised at how many of the younger generations have even read the Gita, let alone studied its teachings, whether here or in India itself. I think because of the IT revolution and how much our lives depend on technology, we have as a world, diluted the significance of historical culture and how we can learn from it in exchange for a heightened sense of the convenience factor. You know, it would be a shame if we didn’t make a conscious effort to continue a certain level of importance on heritage because the purpose of life will be eventually be lost in translation. If you look at the western world, in spite of the infusion of the convenience factor, they have now for a few decades, been looking to the east through the teachings of Hinduism and Buddism especially, to enhance their lives. Conversely, as South Asians, we’re steering away. I wonder sometimes what the future will look like with this shift of balance. I guess only time will tell, but I think if we make the effort we’ll be better than other cultures who have and are facing a masses of cultural dilution. Also, because of our culture’s emphasis on education, we’re really lucky because this has been paramount (along with our work ethic), to garner statistics like one in every fifth South Asian person in America is a millionaire. Considering we’ve only been here since the late sixties, we’ve got so many great things going for us so we just need to make a little bit of an effort to retain and teach our culture to future generations. This is the only way I feel we can refrain from sabotaging the richness and diversity of our lives and the arts.

Absolutely. Well said! Now let’s talk a little bit about the woman you are – define her.
The woman I am is full of love, humility, compassion, sympathy, confidence and most importantly, there to help others.

Define the diva in you.
Wow – that’s a tough question because there are so many divaesque things about me. [Laughs.] But since I define ‘diva’ as being on top of your game, I can tell you that I’m extremely hard working, dedicated to learning about life, about the world, about relationships and about love.

So, where do you draw your strength from in moments of challenge?
My mom passed away about five years ago. I believe that I get the strength - from her from above. Any time I’m not sure about what to do, where to go or how to handle any particular situation, I just ask her, “Mom, what’s going on? What should I do?” So, I look to her to give me that extra strength that we all need from time to time. That extra strength doesn’t mean that you’re necessarily in a bad situation, but maybe your just looking for insight into understanding something before you make a decision on how to move forward.

Tell me something about you that no one would know.
I’m a very good cook.

Are you dating?
Mmmmm. I’m going to refrain from talking about my personal life. [Laughs.]

Okay, so then there’s hope for all those thousands of men out there who upon reading our interview, will want to know you more?

How did you feel when you were told that you’d be the next ANOKHI cover personality and that too, for our very first ever Fashion & Style issue?
I was very surprised and humbled that ANOKHI would choose me to represent their Fashion & Style Issue as the cover. I’m very, very excited to be a part of it and I just hope that the readers will embrace me in this light, especially South Asian women because we’ve all got such great minds, bodies and souls, so we should all be fashion and style icons.

Open Chest with Raj Girn

Open Chest is a registered trademark of RG Media Enterprises Inc. All rights reserved.

What is the significance of Fashion & Style for you as a woman and as a public figure?
I have always said that confidence, knowing yourself and being forever humble are traits to live by so fashion is a great way to bring that to the periphery for people to recognize them and who you are.

What does the ANOKHI brand represent for you?
Power, confidence, exuberance, passion and humility are all qualities I believe we, as South Asians, all strive for. ANOKHI is all of these things, wrapped up in glamour and sophistication. I LOVE ANOKHI!!

What’s “ANOKHI” about you?
My constant and unfathomable love for life.

I believe…
…that we are all destined for greatness and as a community, when we begin to support and encourage each other, that’s when we will reach our moksha!


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