Pooja Kumar: So much to learn from Kamal Haasan, but so little time
The actor talks about her upcoming film, Vishwaroopam 2, and how the film has really tapped into her emotional range
Having been raised in the US on films like Madhumati and Mughal-E-Azam, it was a dream come true for Pooja Kumar when she signed a film with veteran actor, Kamal Hassan. She didn’t know at the time that she’d go on to complete a hat-trick of films with him — Vishwaroopam, Uttama Villain and Vishwaroopam 2 — with the latter set for release this Friday. “I consider myself fortunate to have this opportunity. For my role in Vishwaroopam 2, I had to dig deep, in terms of emotion. The character I play (Dr Nirupama) uses her skills to become a part of the team and help catch the villains,” says the 41-year-old actor. The original Vishwaroopam marked her comeback as a lead actor in Indian cinema, ten years after her 2003 Malayalam film, Magic Magic 3D.
A trained Bharatanatyam, Kathak and Kuchipudi dancer herself, Pooja is a self-confessed admirer of Kamal’s dancing ability. She shares that there’s no end to learning, when with such an artiste, who’s at once an actor, dancer and director. “Kamal sir makes Bharatanatyam look so easy and beautiful. Just watching him perform can teach you so much. There’s so much to learn from him, and there’s never enough time. My biggest lesson is to never give up,” she says.
Born to Indian parents who settled in the US, Pooja grew up admiring actors like Madhuri Dixit, Rekha and Sridevi, who she calls her inspirations. “All three of them are brilliant actors. I was enchanted by how they portrayed so many emotions on screen. It felt good to see Indian people on screen,” says this former Miss India USA winner, adding that her respect for female actors increased when she began acting. That’s when she realised the long hours of shooting, the burden of heavy costumes and the volatility of weather conditions.
Back when she was growing up in the US, not many Indian films were easily accessible, but that didn’t stop Pooja or her parents from somehow watching Hindi films almost every other week. “My parents are film buffs. I remember my father buying CDs from a bus station and renting a projector at home, so we could watch Indian films,” she recollects. However, when Pooja decided to make a career in the film industry, it wasn’t so easy to convince her parents. “It was tough, but with time, they understood and supported me. For outsiders, films seem easy because they only see the final two-hour-long output. Nobody looks at the year-long struggle that goes behind it,” says Pooja.
In the last decade or so, the representation of Asian actors in America cinema and television has had quite a boost. With actors like Mindy Kaling, Kal Penn, Padma Lakshmi and the recent entrant Priyanka Chopra, the horizon has certainly widened for those of Indian origin. Pooja too has benefitted from it. “Thanks to the IT boom and globalisation, our generation has had better opportunities to explore fresh stories about relationships. Today, people are able to talk about being brown in America and how that makes them feel. When I was younger, I remember Persis Khambatta and how she rocked her role in Star Trek,” says Pooja, who admires the work of actors like Kumail Nanjiani, Om Puri and Naveen Andrews, among others.
Having worked in both Hollywood and Indian cinema, Pooja is convinced that cinema is evolving in both industries, both in terms of content and filmmaking format. The biggest difference, however, she points out, lies in the storytelling method. “Indian films are more family-oriented with more romance and less negativity. Lately, we have had more representation of women and topics that earlier were untouched. Consider films such as Hitchki, Veere Di Wedding and Kahaani. The increase in IT and job opportunities has led to more women working and that has reflected on cinema as well. It is remarkable to see actors like Anushka Sharma produce films. We are behind the camera too,” she says with a smile. “But we need more.”
The Vishwaroopam films may be of the action genre, but Pooja would quite like to try her hand at other genres too. “In particular, I would really like to do romantic comedies.”