Kal Penn @ UPenn

This past Sunday I went down to the University of Pennsylvania for a rare, open Q&A session with Kal Penn. As readers may remember from Anna's earlier post on the subject, Penn is at Penn this spring, teaching a class on representations of Asian Americans in the Media. He's also shooting episodes of "House" (go, House), and stumping for Obama in his free time, though with that schedule I'm not sure how he has any.

As I understand it, there was initially some controversy about the class -- is this going to be a stunt, or a real asset to a the Asian American Studies curriculum?

If it were just about bringing a little glamor to campus, I would be skeptical too. But I think it's fair to say Penn is both an actor and a careful observer of the representation of Desis in both Hollywood and the Indie film world. If you listen to him talk, it's clear that he's thought carefully and self-critically about his experiences and choices (he's very aware that his role as a home-grown, Muslim-American terrorist on 24 might be seen as "problematic," for instance -- though he still defends the choice to take the role). He's self-conscious enough to know what a racist representation of a South Asian character is, and call it by that name. But at the same time, he's open about the fact that minority actors sometimes need to play ball to get an entree in Hollywood.

In response to one of the questions posed by a student at the Q&A Kal Penn effectively acknowledged that this was the dilemma he faced when he auditioned for his first Hollywood movie, "Van Wilder." Unfortunately, Penn also suggested, in response to another question, that things aren't all that much better even now, for actors who are just starting out:

"I think things for me personally as an artist have changed dramatically, but I know that overall, that change has been slow and incremental. There is no shortage of truly talented actors of South Asian descent in places like New York, Los Angeles, Toronto, and London. There are folks who majored in theater, studied film, and are experiencing the same struggles I went through when I was starting out. I think that was my main point: things for me have begun to change, but things for others are perhaps remaining the same." (Kal Penn, from an email)

For instance, Penn was asked not long ago to do an Indian accent for a small role he had in a big studio film, but the respectful rendition of an Indian accent he attempted on camera was found to be insufficiently comical by the studio. After the film was shot, the studio execs actually asked him to go back and re-dub his lines with a thicker, more comical accent. To his credit, Penn refused to do it -- and there wasn't really anything the studio people could do (the film was destined to flop in any case). As Penn put it in his answer to the question, "They were using racism to hide a bad script. Racism was their marketing strategy."

(That last comment strikes me as dead on, but still distressing. It's not that racism or sexism sneaks into scripts by accident -- it might be that in some ways studios know this is exactly what they need to sell product...)

Penn pointed out that part of the problem is with the writers and studios that make this stuff -- and note that the alternative to unfortunate images of Asians in the media is often the complete erasure of all people of color from the fantasy world presented on TV and in the movies. "Friends" and "Seinfeld" were both shows with all white casts, set, improbably, in New York, one of the most diverse cities in the world. In the Q&A, Penn asked, "How come there are no people of color in their
New York City?"

But of course, it's not totally irrelevant to this that most South Asians in the U.S. are professionally oriented -- there aren't many of us trying to be writers or media people. "We're too busy trying to be doctors and engineers," Penn suggested, to think of this as a serious career option. If more of us were in the business there might be fewer characters like Apu (or Taj Mahal Badalandabad), and more characters like Gogol Ganguli.

I also stood up to ask a question myself, about naming -- since this is one of the things that some readers at Sepia Mutiny have sometimes grumbled about vis a vis Mr. Kalpen Modi (not to mention, Piyush "Bobby" Jindal...). My question was this: I completely understand why you chose a stage name when you were first starting out. But now that you've achieved a measure of success as an actor, have you considered going back to your given name?

Some parts of the answer were expected. For one thing, quite a number of professional actors use stage names. Penn did recount that he had been advised by friends to adopt a more "Anglo-sounding" name when he was first starting out. But he also mentioned something I hadn't known about before, that "Indian uncles" had suggested that, based on Hindu numerology, it would be good luck for him to try and keep his real first name, but add an extra letter to it. And voila: Kalpen became Kal Penn.

As for whether Kal Penn might ever revert to his given name, not likely -- once you started getting credited under one name, he suggested, it's hard to change it. Still, on several of his recent films, he's lobbied to get his real name introduced on the credits somewhere, perhaps as production assistant. On "The Namesake," he was fittingly credited for Nikhil as "Kalpen Modi," and for Gogol as "Kal Penn."