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Exclusive Interview with Kal Penn

March 2007
Exclusive Interview with Kal Penn

What's in a name? Like his character, Gogol, in Mira Nair's promising Namesake, actor Kal Penn would say, "A lot!" Penn's film career saw the light of the day only after he changed his name from Kalpen Modi to Kal Penn. In an exclusive interview with Khabar, Penn talks about his rise in Hollywood, giving a glimpse of what his experience might mean for Indian Americans on the small and big screen.

The past two years have seen great growth in the number of Indian faces in movies and on TV. On the small screen, Parminder Nagra has now been a presence on ER long enough to overcome the previous image of her as the tomboy soccer enthusiast in Bend It Like Beckham. Maulik Pancholy is blessed with a cable series role in Weeds and a primetime role as the highly-strung righthand man to the slick Alec Baldwin on the quirky comedy 30 Rock. Mindy Kaling operates on screen as an actress in The Office, and offscreen as one of the writers (still primarily a man's domain). Naveen Andrews has drawn raves for his complex performance as a former Republican Guard on Lost, and the list goes on.

The Indian presence is even being felt on reality shows. Raj Bhatka and his bowties left a memorable impression on one season of The Apprentice, followed shortly after by Toral Mehta, and now Surya Yalamanchili on The Apprentice: Los Angeles. There was even a short-lived desi presence on last season's The Amazing Race (though the couple was eliminated in the first episode).

One face that has been seen prominently in the post-New Year resumption of TV series is that of Kal Penn, n� Kalpen Suresh Modi. In January he appeared in an episode of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit (SVU) as a rapist, and, more famously (or infamously, if you follow commentary on the desi blog Sepia Mutiny) he played a boy-next-door-turned-sleeper-cell-terrorist in the opening episodes of the current season of Fox Network's 24.

Whatever exposure these early 2007 appearances have gained him, Penn's star will surely rise even higher in March with the global release of Mira Nair's The Namesake, based on Jhumpa Lahiri's bestselling novel. The New Jersey-born actor, son of Gujarati parents and soon to turn 30 years old, has been working toward this moment since he realized his calling after seeing Nair's Mississippi Masala. When he spoke recently with Khabar for this article, Penn said: "She was one of my role models growing up and one of the biggest influences on me becoming an actor, so to go full circle and to have the opportunity to work with her was an amazing, amazing experience. The Namesake was one of my favorite books, it still is one of my favorite books, so the chance to work on the screen adaptation of that, all of those things added up to being an incredible experience and definitely the most important, most intense, and most challenging film that I've worked on so far."

Penn's recent television endeavors are a return for him, as he initially worked on programs like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and The Steve Harvey Show after graduating from UCLA. His work in 2001 in the Pandya brothers' film American Desi, as the one of the three roommates who seems to be a young black man trapped in the body of a Gujurati Indian-American undergrad, albeit one who can do ras dandia, gave an early indication of Penn's easy comedic timing. Subsequent film work included National Lampoon's Van Wilder, Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, A Lot Like Love, and Superman Returns. His recent reprisal of his role of Taj Mahal Badalandabad in National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, with Penn as executive producer and in the title role, faired poorly at the box office.

Given mainstream America's ever-increasing interest in all things Indian, the success of Deepa Mehta's Oscar-nominated Water last year, and the prior success of Lahiri's novel, the prospects for Mira Nair's film are indeed promising—even more so since The Namesake covers not only the Indian experience but also the immigrant experience in America, and since the film warmly embraces both countries.

Penn, who reportedly lobbied Nair for the role of the unusually named Gogol Ganguli, was well able to relate to the character, admitting that his childhood was "pretty similar actually, more similar to the book that details a lot more, but you know, family parties, parents' friends coming over, and large extended families and being friends with your parents' friends' kids, things like that. There was definitely a similar upbringing."

In the film, Kal Penn grows from sulky high school senior, mortified by his strange name, to young man finding his way in life and coming to terms with past choices. Irfan Khan and Tabu play the roles of his father and mother, Ashoke and Ashima Ganguli. In the screenings of the film that he's seen, when asked if he finds himself getting teary-eyed in the same places where the rest of us do, Penn said, "It's hard for me to disassociate myself from the scenes that I'm in, but I definitely have teared up watching the movie when there are scenes between Ashoke and Ashima and other characters."

While Lahiri's novel was well received in 2003 and made the New York Times' bestseller list, one complaint that has been raised is with the character now embodied by Penn, with charges that Gogol was a whiny, spoiled brat too wrapped up in himself. It's not something that Kal Penn denies: "I think that in a lot of ways Gogol is a very self-absorbed character. Definitely. I think his self-absorption probably starts to emerge when he goes away to Yale. I don't know if you have any friends that went to Yale but there is sometimes an underlying self-absorption that comes out of that university. I think when you're going to college with the future presidents of the United States, you know that you're in a very elite place so maybe—this is just me hypothesizing—but being surrounded by all this elitisim, Gogol turns into a bit more self-absorbed than he was before he left. I think the turning point back to reality for him comes with the death of his father because that makes him realize that he's been ignoring his own family for the sake of Maxine's, and that brings it back around."

Aside from being enamored of his character, it's clear to see that the impact of the experience of making a film with Mira Nair is significant for Kal Penn, for the small details as well as the big scenes. He tells a story of one such example: "There is something that I think is indicative and symbolic of a lot of her personality and attention to detail and her warmth and positivity. There's a scene towards the end of the film where Gogol is going through a box of things from his childhood and that's where he discovers the book that his father gave him when he was in high school. The guy that was in charge of props and set dressing, he put a bunch of little army action figures in that box, you know, army guys with guns and things like that, basically something every American kid plays with."

He continues: "I remember Mira went over to the box just to see what was in it, and she pulled out the army action figures and said ‘Who put this in there?' and then she said ‘I'm not trying to promote war in my movies' and threw them in the garbage. And to me, that was so important and it was such a testament to how much love she puts in, and how much hope and positivity she puts into her films. She does that with every single scene and every single frame of the movie, and any movie that she does, and, it seems to me, wants everything to be full of this life, and this vibrance and this positivity and not full of death and destruction and things that unfortunately do make their way into films."

On the subject of meticulous awareness of detail, it's interesting to note that in the press packet handed out at screenings of The Namesake, in the cast credits, Penn himself is listed twice. First, the credit for "Gogol" is Kal Penn. Immediately after, the credit for "Nikhil" is Kalpen Modi. Nikhil is the pet name which Penn's character decides to legally adopt as his first name, favoring it over Gogol. Kal Penn is the modified version of Kalpen Suresh Modi that the actor himself chose at the start of his acting career.

While there may be a lot of hopes and expectations about what this role will do for Kal Penn's career, and by extension, the visibility of Indian-American actors in general, he remains cautious, saying "Let's see what happens after The Namesake. I think the great thing, if you look at the past four or five years in film and television, there is a lot more opportunity and a lot more roles that are being played by Indian actors. There's certainly never been a shortage of talented Indian actors, there's only been a shortage of opportunity, and I think some of that opportunity has been opened up even more with folks like Sendhil Ramamurthy on Heroes, and Parminder Nagra on ER, and obviously Naveen Andrews on Lost, and Maulik Pancholy—he actually went to Yale Drama School—who's been on the new NBC show, 30 Rock—all of these guys."

He continues: "The opportunities now compared to four years ago are astronomically different and I think one of the reasons for that is you're seeing a lot more South Asian writers, more people who are majoring in these subjects. If you're familiar with Mindy Kaling, she's both a writer and an actor on The Office and having somebody like that who's a writer, she wrote an episode of The Office called "Diwali." In terms of awareness, you can credit her solely with that. So I think things are changing. My hope, I guess, is that this visibility will hopefully encourage more South Asian kids to major in writing, and major in film, and major in dance or theater, if that's what they want to do."

Considering the role model issue and if it weighs on him to have such a prominent position—when asked if the recent discussion on Sepia Mutiny about his role on 24 was a misstep, Penn is passionate in his response: "I am familiar with those discussions, actually, because I have a lot of friends who forward those articles to me, and I think number one, without a doubt, the only reason those discussions are taking place is because there are not enough of us trying to become actors and there's not enough opportunity out there for us."

"We have an abundance of South Asian doctors and engineers and pharmacists, etc., etc., and that's great, but were there a fair balance, we wouldn't even be having this discussion about one Indian actor's role and the impact that has.

"That said, obviously I'm not ignoring that there is such a void out there and particularly with regard to the role on 24, it's interesting because personally and politically there's not a role that I could disagree with more. I think that that particular role suggests that it's ok to racially profile and that's something I find personally outrageous. There's absolutely no excuse for racial profiling especially within the confines of a show like that, it's potentially a very damaging thing to suggest. On the flip side of that, because I'm so totally opposed to that, and because I'm opposed to violence, because I'm terrified in real life of even seeing a gun, not to mention hold one, to play the role of someone who ends up being a terrorist, ends up shooting someone and killing them in cold blood, these are things as an actor that are incredibly challenging to take."

"Nobody asks white actors why they took negative roles, so by asking, or taking issue with the fact that I've taken a role that's somehow negative, the community is actually doing the same damage as Hollywood's doing by suggesting that perhaps we shouldn't have the right to take a role based on merit, we should only think of ourselves in terms of race."

"Certainly it's a lot more complicated than that because there is a void as I mentioned just before in these types of depictions, so it's an interesting thing to bring up and I think that the only deciding factor was being able to play a role that was challenging, as opposed to something like American Desi or Where's the Party, Yaar?, which is not the least bit challenging as an actor, but at the same time also understanding that by taking a role like I did in 24 and sparking that sort of discussion, I am actually given a platform to point out that this is something that we should not tolerate, that we should not tolerate racial profiling, and hopefully it did piss people off on Sepia Mutiny and hopefully they will write letters to their congressman and they won't just sit there and go to their medical school classes and whine about how Kal Penn took a job, but hopefully what they will do is write a letter to Bobby Jindal, write a letter to President Bush, write a letter to all these people who do have the ability to change something, in terms of American politics."

Before saying goodbye, when asked, by continuation of the same theme, if he finds himself pausing to wonder what the aunties might think of him when, if faced with a pretty girl that he'd like to ask out—say, one who happens to be blonde-haired and blue-eyed—he laughs, saying "No, that's nobody else's business!" For a man who has already spoken openly in Playboy magazine several years ago about his social activity at college, and more, one shouldn't be surprised by his response.

By Maria Giovanna

[Maria Giovanna is a New York based freelance journalist who is bitten by the Bollywood bug. She writes frequently about Indian filmdom on her blog http://filmiholic.com, which carries the tag line, "Meri duniya, bilkul filmi." This feature was exclusive to Khabar.]

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