An unlikely heroine
A first-generation American-Indian, Pooja Kumar, who has a three-film contract with actor Kamal Haasan, talks to Team Viva about her fortuitous path to Tamil cinema
An American-Indian landing a plum role in a mega-budget Indian film is unheard of but actress Pooja Kumar, the lead actress in Vishwaroopam, Vishwaroopam 2 and Uttama Villain, has had an unexpected journey and found her identity. “It’s karma and destiny. All of the work I did up to that point (when Kamal Haasan called her for Vishwaroopam) prepared me for this,” she said.
In the Vishwaroopam series, she plays a nuclear oncologist who is initially self-absorbed but later falls in love with the spy, played by Haasan. “He made this character come alive. The character has a purpose and isn’t just a prop. Since he was surrounded by his mother and sisters while growing up, he wrote a character where the woman is actually integral to the movie. I play a nuclear oncologist and this attention to detail, like the profession, makes the character more clear,” she added.
She began her journey as an off-Broadway actress in the US, where her parents went in 1970s for education and stayed on. As someone who continues to be a resident of the US and has come to terms with her identity as a person of colour, she never felt that she was any less from the others. Growing up with doctor-engineer parents and great teachers, she realised that arts is how she could inspire other people of colour towards equality. “My first performance was in Taming of the Shrew where I played Petruchio. I wanted the male part because it was a bigger role than the female one. A girl played Katherine. So two girls played the lead, which is interesting because in Shakespeare it used to be guys playing all the characters and we reversed it. What was more interesting is that this was in St Louis, Missouri, which is very Caucasian. At that time, I didn’t think I was brown,” she said.
After 27 off-Broadway plays and Hollywood movies, she received a call from Haasan. “We did a Skype call and five days later I was on a plane to Chennai. I didn’t know anything and wondered what was the worst that could happen? I would meet this amazing filmmaker, get on the plane and come back. It would be a win-win situation. He gave me five pages of dialogue in Tamil. After that, I was like great, this won’t happen in a day. I’ll do vannakam and leave,” said she. However, not only did she get the part but she also signed two to three films with Haasan.
Before this film, she had never done a romantic comedy with action, she said. “Vishwaroopam II is a global movie for the global Indian. Earlier, people attempted this fusion but it didn’t work well. Sir has a unique voice. I think he combines Western edginess with Indian sentiments and that’s difficult to do. These are very different genres. He has put Tamil cinema on the global scene.”
Having worked in both India and Hollywood, she felt it was unfair to compare the industries in both the countries. “People do so because Indians are the largest English-speaking immigrant community and are successful there. In actuality, we have so much history which they don’t have. People have asked me how do you compare the two places. There the budget is like $100 million here it’s $10 million,” she added.
The actress reiterated that it was destiny that brought her back. She visits her grandmother in Lucknow often. Yes, she is pan-Indian, mother from Lucknow, father from Dehra Dun and immigrant in Chennai.
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