Indian-American Actress Pooja Kumar Reflects on Big Breaks, Good Karma and Growing Up in St. Louis.
A few minutes with Bollywood actress Pooja Kumar is all it takes to decide she’s the perfect combination of brains and beauty. And let’s not forget class, personality and passion—the additional three traits that are immediately recognizable in this St. Louis-born Indian-American entertainer, who before her big break into the Hollywood/Bollywood scene was a political science and finance major at St. Louis’ own Washington University.
Quickly proving that academics were far from her only forte, Kumar claimed the Miss India USA crown in 1995 and then burst into the TV and film industry, starting as a video disc jockey for Asian music network Channel [V] and quickly moving into TV and feature film appearances for both Hollywood (She played the Assistant District Attorney on “Law & Order” and received the Screen Actors Guild Emerging Actor Award for her role in “Flavors”) and Bollywood, where she recently starred in the first-ever Hollywood-Bollywood TV collaboration (“Bollywood Hero”) with SNL comedian Chris Kattan and guest actor Keanu Reeves. Now, with more than 10 feature films under her belt, numerous TV shows, major ad campaigns (for “Bombay Dreams,” Pepsi, Verizon and others) and a recent shift into producing, Kumar is living proof that Hollywood—and Bollywood—dreams really do come true.
ALIVE: So, how does a girl who majored in political science and finance at Washington University end up in Hollywood/Bollywood?
Pooja Kumar: (Laughs). I’d have to say karma and destiny. I grew up in St. Louis doing a lot of classical Indian dance. I was performing at an Indian-American function in Chicago, and they asked me to represent young Indian-American women in a beauty pageant, and I thought, “Are they crazy?” I’d never competed in a pageant, but decided to give it a try. I ended up winning the Miss India Tribune and went onto the national competition, Miss India USA—never thinking I had a chance of getting anywhere—and ended up winning that as well. Then things just started happening from there. It’s amazing what destiny can do and the things it can bring to your life if you just keep your eyes open.
ALIVE: What was it like growing up with two dominant cultures?
PK: Looking back, I think, “Gosh, I’m really lucky because I know two different worlds.” I’m blessed that I had parents that wanted their kids to be American and know this way of life while also blending in our Indian culture. They introduced India in a fun and interesting way and didn’t force it on us and just let us experience it. They took us to India every summer, so that’s where I learned all the beautiful things about my heritage
ALIVE: How do you think that experience has shaped you as a person and an actress?
PK: As an actress, I feel like it has given me many more perspectives, emotions and characters that I can tap into. All of this has helped me to be open and have knowledge of what’s going on in the world and how different cultures react to different things. Personally, it has given me a broader point of view that I’m extremely grateful for.
ALIVE: What projects are you working on right now?
PK: Right now, my focus is on promoting two films (Drawing with Chalk and Bollywood Beats, which was recently featured at the St. Louis International Film Festival). I’m one of those actors that very much believes in the projects I do, so I try to help the filmmaker as much as I can as far as getting it out there and meeting with distributors and getting it into film festivals. I’m very hands-on in that sense.
ALIVE: Speaking of hands-on, you’re also a producer. When did you get into that role?
PK: You know, I never really thought about [producing] until I had been acting for a couple of years. I just couldn’t pass up the first short film I produced (1001 Auditions) about a struggling New York actress who realizes her true karma. I just loved the concept because I could identify a lot with the character, who was going through the day-to-day life of an actress living in New York, trying to make rent, going to auditions and getting rejected and going out there again. Producing is tough, and it’s not for everyone. But as an actor, I feel I should be producing and creating because each of us has an individual voice, and if we’re willing to share it, we’ll have much more interesting content and be more satisfied within our own careers.
ALIVE: Sounds like you stay pretty busy.
PK: Normally, I have at least two or three meetings a day in regards to projects I’m working on. Today I had a meeting with my team on another feature film that I’m producing, starring and acting in. It’s an untitled romantic comedy that’s in preproduction right now, and I’m really excited about it. Whether I’m reading a script, going to an audition or meeting with a director, I’m always working. Basically, I live the typical life of a New Yorker, which is having no time and always keeping busy.
ALIVE: How do you unwind?
PK: I do yoga at least four times a week and drink a glass of milk every morning. It’s just so detoxifying and clears your mind and refreshes your whole body. Shopping is another outlet. My apartment is in New York’s Flatiron District, right off of Fifth Avenue, which is great most of the time, but it can be a difficult task to walk down Fifth Avenue and not go into a shop.
ALIVE: What is it like to suddenly see yourself on billboards and in major magazines?
PK: It’s sort of surreal. Growing up, you don’t think something like this is ever going to happen to you, and then people are calling you the Indian Sarah Jessica Parker. I love that label, by the way. But most of all, I love when people appreciate the work. All of the other things are just an added bonus.
Actress Pooja Kumar
Photo credit: Dan Hallman; Dress provided by Naeem Khan