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Kal Penn: Hollywood's Desi No1!

By Aseem Chhabra in New York
April 22, 2005 16:41 IST
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Kal PennLast year, when Kal Penn was promoting Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle -- a hilarious film about two drugged-up Asian buddies in search of the perfect small size hamburgers, known as sliders -- he made the customary appearance on the Jay Leno show.

As the audience laughed and Leno looked shocked, Penn narrated a tale of a casting agent who had asked him why he was not wearing a turban.

"Are you serious?" Leno asked, as Penn continued to narrate what appeared to be his ultimate stereotype audition experience.

Today, Penn stands by his story.

"That was true," says Penn, 28. Son of Gujarati immigrant parents and one of the busiest Indian-American actors of the current generation, he was born Kalpen Modi in Montclair, New Jersey.

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"It was the first audition I went on in Los Angeles for a commercial. I walked into the audition and the casting director said 'Where's your turban?' I said, 'I don't wear a turban; I am not a Sikh.'

I started to explain the difference but she got very upset and said, 'Well, can you go home and put on a bed sheet or something?'

"It is a true story. It was ridiculous, which is why I like telling it."

Mercifully, Penn's days of being asked to wear turbans and perform stereotypical roles are past him.

This weekend, the actor can be seen as Jeeter, Ashton Kutcher's best friend and business partner in A Lot Like Love -- British director Nigel Cole's (Calendar Girls) romantic comedy, which could be described as When Harry Met Sally for the new millennium.

He is currently filming the role of Gogol in Mira Nair's interpretation of Jhumpa Lahri's critically acclaimed book, The Namesake.

And this June he heads to Sydney to shoot director Bryan Singer's (The Usual Suspects and X-Men) Superman Returns.

A Lot Like Love does not identify Jeeter by his ethnicity.

"That's much to the credit of Nigel who doesn't think in racial or ethnic terms," Penn says. "Disney (also) didn't think in racial and ethnic terms. I know both Ashton and Nigel were pushing for me to get the part based on the audition. It was really one those wonderful examples of colour blind casting -- to cast an actor regardless of his race."

With Ashton Kutcher in A Lot Like LoveBut Penn has had his share of other experiences, where actors of South Asian descent are often asked to put on accents that represent their racial type.

He says he has done those roles because there are very few roles out there for brown-skinned actors.

"Unfortunately, there is a perception within the South Asian community that there should be a greater feeling of responsibility, that actors should have," says Penn. "Critics often tend to be doctors and engineers and people who are doing nothing to advance South Asians in entertainment. So it very easy for them to sit there and say 'You shouldn't do this or that. I am not saying they don't have the right to say it. But without the encouragement from the community, without the encouragement to get people to study the arts and write scripts and produce television and feature films, it's really an uphill battle."

"I think when actors deal with the issues of racial representation, it's a lot deeper than answering the question of an accent," he adds. "Because there is so much more at stake in terms if whether or not that role will get you another role that may be more challenging and so on."

Part of the reason why South Asian actors do not get more meaty roles may have to with the fact that the community, with an estimated three million people is still not that visible across the US.

Penn concedes that it is a game of numbers, but adds that the South Asian community has one of the highest per capita incomes.

"Unfortunately, we are actually shooting ourselves in the foot," he says. "We are not executing our purchasing power when it comes to films because of things like piracy."

The actor says he has walked into Indian stores where he has seen pirated DVDs – not only Bollywood products, but also works of Mira Nair, and his own repertoire, including Harold And Kumar and National Lampoon's Val Wilder.

"So it reduces the actual fair market value of what South Asians are spending and putting out there," he says.

Surely the fact that Penn's films are being pirated in the Indian stores must indicate he has finally made it. "I guess you can put it that way," he laughs.

With Ashton Kutcher in A Lot Like LovePenn is a graduate of the Freehold Regional High School District's Performing Arts High School and UCLA's prestigious School of Theatre, Film and Television.

He moved to Los Angeles in 1995, and worked on several indie films, including two of the most talked about Indian-American productions, American Desi (2001) and Where's The Party Yaar? (2003).

It was only in 2003 that he was able to secure consistent work and move into his own apartment in the city, although that did not necessarily have to do with his break with Harold And Kumar.

"That movie wasn't a huge financial payoff," he says. "The first few huge films you do don't tend to pay very well, contrary to popular perception."

His experiences and struggles may have been similar to other Indian-American actors where each break, big or small, results in a serious of questions and trade offs -- whether they want to do the specific role, and whether the role is challenging and fulfilling?

"Recently, I have had the luxury of doing more mainstream stuff," he says. "This I know is sort of branding me as a name and hopefully, as a commodity which will allow me to continue to work."

As things seem to be falling in the right order for Penn, there is even a talk about a sequel to Harold And Kumar. The script he says is ready, but the project has not been given the green light.

"Because the DVD sales numbers haven't been strong yet," he says. So maybe Penn's South Asian supporters should go out and buy some more DVDs of the film.

"Yeah please, but no pirated ones," he says with a laugh.

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Aseem Chhabra in New York