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Pooja Kumar of Hiding Divya

By: Sucheta Rawal Email By: Sucheta Rawal
October 2010
Pooja Kumar of Hiding Divya What strikes one about actor and producer Pooja Kumar is that she is fun to speak with, friendly and intelligent. The winner of Anokhi Magazine’s Actor of the Year Award for 2010 for her contribution to media and entertainment, was in Atlanta recently premiering her movie Hiding Divya, an independent film about the lives of three south Asian women facing mental illness.
The film explores the stigma attached to mental illness, especially in the Indian community. “We care about each other and are always there with our food containers but when it comes to addressing issues [about mental illness], we don’t want to talk about them,” observes Kumar. Hiding Divya examines the issue and the consequences of society’s ignorance about mental illness. The film makes the viewer realize that mental illness is not a weakness but a disease stemming from a chemical imbalance, deserving medical attention.
Growing up in St. Louis, Kumar found that dancing and acting were the best ways to stay involved with her Indian heritage. She learned classical dancing during her summer vacations in India, and performed on stage all through her childhood. While she was passionate about the arts, her engineer parents encouraged her to earn a degree that would help her get a paying job. She went to Boston University to study political science and ended up being classmates with Abhishek and Shweta Bachchan, the children of Amitabh and Jaya Bachchan, among India’s best known actors.
Kumar went on to win the Miss India USA title, and a talent contest organized by Amitabh Bachchan Corporation Limited, after which her career in films took off. Ten years ago, she couldn’t even read or write Hindi, but now she has acted in several Hindi, Tamil and English films, and produced two short films.
One needs to have both emotional and physical versatility to be able to emulate the character one is portraying. Kumar does this very effectively, and seemingly effortlessly, because of her open-mindedness and early exposure to life in both the East and the West. She explains, “You have to go on the journey yourself, and sometimes it takes months to recover from a role.” Personal concentration that involves growing and learning is most important to her in any project. While she is humbled by the recognition she has received, she continues to challenge herself to the next level. She is producing a feature film from 1001 Auditions, her award-winning short film, and is considering four other acting roles.
Kumar is well aware that the face of Indian cinema is changing. Second-generation Indians who grew up in the United States often do not understand the unrealism that is commonplace in traditional Bollywood movies. They do like the song and dance interjections, but only when they fit the scene as they do in Broadway musicals. However, as Kumar points out, more interesting and meaningful movies are now being made in India as well, such as Tere Bin Laden, Udaan, Manorama 6 Feet Under, and Finding Cyrus. From her experience in working in both countries, Kumar observes, “We have a wealth of stories in India and the technicians are at par with the West.”
Kumar firmly attributes her success to hard work, a balanced life and destiny. She advises other budding south Asian artistes to have a strategy on how they can make a career in films for themselves. “They must study the basics and learn the techniques from a good college” she says. “Additionally, have full confidence but also be ready to face rejections. You must physically be in Los Angeles or New York so you can meet independent directors, other actors and be close to the film scene. Writing is another good way to break into the industry. Many actors will do well if they have their own screenplays. Don’t be afraid to do independent films, even if only for practice.” Lastly, she emphasizes on easing the financial stress by taking a loan or keeping savings for the times you are trying to get your feet on the ground.
Kumar has had some unique experiences on this journey. Since her childhood, she has idealized pioneering south Asian women like Madhur Jaffrey and Zohra Segal, who made it in English language films a long time ago, and feels very lucky to have gotten to work with Jaffrey in Hiding Divya. Kumar plays the role of Jaffrey’s daughter in the film. She was very nervous on the first day of shooting and felt a bit uncomfortable playing her rude character. “It is an emotional experience to work alongside someone you have idealized your entire life.”
Her upcoming Bollywood feature Anjana Anjani with stars Ranbir Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra comes out in September. It is a light romantic comedy where Kumar plays Priyanka Chopra’s best friend. She was very excited to work with Chopra, who herself is a talented top-rated actress with over 35 films under her belt. Kumar recalls that it was quite difficult to work on wintry nights in New York City for the movie, but the Indian food kept her going.
While she is honored by the recognition she has received for her work thus far, she looks forward to more challenging roles and with directors who can help her learn and grow even more.
The cause of promoting other talented women is a mission Kumar believes in personally. She wants to give others opportunities by producing more films and casting female actors. “There is an abundance of talent but very few roles that are written with us women in mind.” She believes her karma has blessed her to pave the way for other Indian women. She expects more East-West collaborations that would include artistes from India and America working side by side. Her upcoming productions include full-length features—1001 Auditions and a romantic comedy. It is artistically challenging to produce and Kumar likes being involved in the decision-making process. However, she finds it tough to manage people, especially artistes, who tend to be highly emotional people.
Kumar is also involved with Lend-A-Hand India, a nonprofit that raises money for vocational schools in India. Its goal is to help rural India gain meaningful employment through hands-on educational programs.
[Sucheta Rawal is a strategy consultant and freelance writer living in the Atlanta area.]

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