e’s an actor, but he can’t stand watching TV. He’s a staunch vegetarian, but he’s been inducted into the White Castle Hall of Fame. He plays a stoner in his latest movie, but in reality he’s an articulate and passionate political activist.
He’s actor Kalpen Modi, better known as Kal Penn. And he’s probably been to a theater near you.
With his new lead in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle (released July 30), Penn is poised to go where no South Asian actor has gone before. He’s one of the few South Asian actors ever to carry a major Hollywood motion picture and the first to do it in a non-stereotypical role. Recent appearances in studio flicks like Malibu’s Most Wanted and a memorable turn as Van Wilder’s awkward exchange-student-turned-hipster assistant, Taj Mahal Balandarabad, have helped Penn become a regular on the studio circuit. But his dossier also boasts an impressive list of indie movie credits such as American Made, The Arrangement and Where’s the Party, Yaar?. All three films explore different themes of what it’s like to be South Asian and American.
Harold & Kumar Go To White Castle
OK, so Harold and Kumar isn’t exactly your typical chick flick. And maybe it’s not a comedy of manners. And you probably wouldn’t call it a profound political polemic.
But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have a message. Indeed, reviewers have praised the movie and Ebert and Roeper gave it two thumbs up. As The New York Times noted, “They pretty much revolutionize the slacker-stoner-comedy genre.” The LA Film Festival, where the film was shown in June, describes it thus: “Harold and Kumar is a very smart comedy masquerading as a very goofy one. Gleefully subverting both audience expectations and racial stereotypes, this 420-friendly farce pushes its humor right to the edge of sublime silliness and then jumps off the edge.”
Even if you don’t like stoner comedies, you’ll still find moments to relate to in this movie. Especially, for example, when Harold and Kumar run into the redneck skateboarders we’ve all dealt with at the convenience store. Or when Kumar gets directions in Hindi from the desi convenience store manager and then comments that, for once, speaking Hindi came in handy.
All that praise, however, doesn’t mean that the comedy doesn’t have moments that will make women, especially, cringe. Practically all of the women in the movie are treated as sex objects. Maybe that’s a theme in line with the stoner comedy genre, but Harold and Kumar is not exactly the kind of movie that most women would feel empowered after seeing.
This is, perhaps, the point—that Asian-Americans come in all varieties: not just the quiet nerds, but also stoners—respectful guys, and not-so-respectful guys. It is a little disappointing, though, that the first movie to boast a South Asian in the lead is a movie that you can’t go see with your South Asian family.
Dreams of the silver screen
So how did a desi boy from New Jersey enter the distinctly non-traditional field of acting? Penn’s story points to the importance of role models—for South Asians in all fields. In an email from California, Penn writes, “I realized that I wanted to be an actor from the time I was young. There is a great feeling you get in storytelling for an audience. I also used to write (and still do write) characters. But it was when I saw Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala that I was truly inspired. It was the first time I had seen South Asian American characters depicted accurately onscreen, and it was indescribably empowering for me. It was like saying, ‘We can do this!’”
Of course, one of the greatest obstacles many South Asians must overcome before undertaking a creative career is the ubiquitous doctor-engineer-computer scientist paradigm. Penn’s parents were reluctantly supportive of his career choice. He is eloquent about his parent’s reaction to his acting aspirations: “I think any parent with a non-arts background would be scared about her/his child’s future if the kid chose something nontraditional like the arts. I think that is compounded a little more for South Asians in the post-65 immigration group because of certain traditional patterns of education, job placement and so on. So at first my parents were cautious but not unsupportive, and as I started working over the years, they realized it was something I love to do.”
Eventually, that support paid off. After being accepted into a performing arts high school, Penn went on to the drama program at UCLA. While in school, he racked up an impressive list of minor jobs in Hollywood. Penn had luck with guest roles in ER and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and he was seen in NBC’s made-for-TV movie Homeland Security this past winter. He also scored parts in small independent movies like American Desi and Freshmen.
Then came his break in Van Wilder, the outrageous comedy about a party-thrower-par-excellence who finally leaves campus life behind. Initially wary of the part (especially the bit that required him to put on a thick Indian accent), Penn was more enthusiastic about the project once he read the rest of the script. That role, he says, pushed him into the spotlight, helping him land the lead in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. And Harold and Kumar is a project he is very excited about. In an open letter to the Asian American community, Penn and fellow lead John Cho declare: “We don’t have stereotypical accents, we don’t passively tread through the story, we’re not asexual or hypersexual, there are no martial arts scenes, one-dimensional cab driver segments. We play a couple of all-American guys who happen to be of Indian and Korean descent.” For Penn, this film is an important way to open the doors to acting and directing for all those of South Asian descent.
Being brown in Tinseltown
Despite his recent success, Penn has felt the sting of covert racism. He was once asked at an audition where his turban was. And after he changed his name from Kalpen Modi to Kal Penn, he saw audition callbacks rise by 50 percent. Ironically, his point in anglicizing his name was to prove a point—only the name stuck. “Almost as a joke to prove friends wrong, and half as an attempt to see if what I was told would work (that anglicized names appeal more to a white-dominated industry), I put ‘Kal Penn’ on my resume and photos. Auditions did increase, and I was amazed. It showed me that there really is such an amount of racism (not just overt, but subconscious as well). I kept the anglicized version of my name on pictures so that I had a better chance of auditions, but I never intended to be known as ‘Kal Penn.’ Ironically, once you start working under any name, you can’t easily be known by another—even if it is your real name. I still prefer Kalpen Modi.”
It’s not surprising then that this actor, articulate in so many ways, also has very definite views on the issue of South Asians in entertainment. Penn believes that “there is no better time than the present to seriously break in. The only way things will change is from the inside—there is no shortage of talented South Asian American actors, so there is definitely a market for good writers and directors.” In fact, according to Penn, being part of the South Asian community might actually work in would-be actors’ and directors’ favor: “Our community has the bizarre fortune of having people with an immense amount of disposable income—dot-commers and cardiologists who want to invest in film—they’re looking for good scripts to finance.”
But if you’re dreaming of your name on a motion picture marquee, Penn warns that it will take hard work. “A profession in the arts requires the type of unglamorous dedication, sacrifice and hard work that you never read about in papers or see on TV because it isn’t as glitzy as a movie premiere or photo shoot. If you love to do it, you’ll do it full time. If not, it’s fine as a hobby but don’t waste your time and energy thinking that you’re going to make a big impact or be taken seriously by other legitimate artists.”
He adds that, despite parental pressures, aspiring South Asian actors shouldn’t be tempted by taking the safe route. “Don’t major in pharmacy or engineering and actually think that you’re going to be ‘acting on the side’ or ‘writing on the side,’” he cautions. In Penn’s eyes, success in acting and writing requires full-time devotion.
“Peace has been part of South Asian history. We need to get it back.”
A passion for politics
Penn certainly possesses strong opinions, and he backs them with well-articulated passion. So it’s no surprise that his passion extends to an arena far from the sphere of acting—politics. His web site features a plea for donations to Narika, an Bay area organization for battered women, and it also displays a page of links to various political and anti-war organizations.
Penn’s idealism for a better world is thoughtfully rooted in his heritage, and he thinks the South Asian community should take action against the injustices he feels are rampant both at home in the US and on the subcontinent. “I believe that peaceful coexistence and activism have been part of South Asian history for hundreds of years,” he says. “Before the British came and screwed South Asia up, communal violence was almost unheard of. I remember stories my grandparents told me about their nonviolent participation in the Indian independence movement, and those ideals have always stayed with me. It’s very important for South Asian Americans to organize and demand a voice in American and global politics, especially at a time in which our own government is legally degrading our human rights as brown people and destroying South Asia through corporate colonization and war. It’s also important for us to look out for our own community. There is no shortage of wonderful organizations servicing South Asians here and in the diaspora (as well as in South Asia). Donate money, volunteer, raise awareness and vote! There are more than a billion of us worldwide. We’re a sixth of the global population—we gotta start acting like it. Peace has been part of South Asian history. We need to get it back.”
With such a knack for eloquently articulating himself and landing historic roles, it’s no doubt Penn’s future is bright. While his dream project is “Gandhi, Mississippi Masala, Ab Thaak Chappan, 1942 Love Story, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Bandit Queen, Salaam Bombay and The Great Gambler all rolled into one,” his real-life upcoming films don’t look too bad, either. He’ll soon appear in Son of the Mask with Jamie Kennedy, A Lot Like Love with Ashton Kutcher and Amanda Peet, and the independent film Dancing in Twilight. With so much to keep him busy, it’s no surprise Penn was named one of People magazine’s 50 Most Eligible Bachelors this summer. Luckily for his female fans, Penn is trying to get off the list: “I am very much single right now, and looking for a cool, smart, outgoing, intelligent, and funny girl. Is that too much to ask for in LA?”
His fans will just have to wait and see whether he finds that elusive match, or whether or not Harold and Kumar continue their adventures in Amsterdam. No matter what, one thing is for certain—Kal Penn is here to stay.