You can't be serious - Kal Penn

I remember renting “Harry and Kumar go to White Castle” from the local Block-Buster one cold day in early 2005. The DVD cover had me curious -

  • The Asian / Indian American lead actors
  • White Castle - A fast food chain that I had never eaten at before
  • Extremely Unrated ??? (obviously a marketing ploy, right ?)

I saw Kal Penn star in The Namesake a few years later. But after that, it seemed like he had faded away. 

Fast forward to November 2021, and the announcement of his memoir - (paywall). 

What had he been up to ?

I dived into this book fully expecting to read about the struggles of a brown actor in Hollywood in the 2000s. While this was true, I also got pages filled with humor, raw honesty and a bit of wisdom.

The narrative in the book that stood out to me was the one where Kal Penn nearly turns down a stereotypical acting role.

What really makes these roles one-dimensional stereotypes is that the person’s ethnicity or race is the focus of who they are as a character, which tends to be the case when it comes to the Hollywood version of cabdrivers and store clerks, or actors who are asked to put on hokey accents for no reason despite having prepared a full backstory for the character. Racial signifiers are stereotypical because they’re reductionist, yes. They’re also artistically boring because they mean that a character rarely has any agency. Everything is tied to identity. Is the character hungry? Curry jokes!

He remained hesitant throughout the casting process. His decision to accept the role got his name on to the credits and into his thin resume. This in turn helped him get considered for future (non-stereotypical) acting roles - Harry & Kumar, The Namesake, House M.D. While on House M.D, he was introduced to and joined a Presidential campaign. That eventually turned into a role as Associate Director in the White House.

“Don’t you ever regret doing Van Wilder?” is a question I’m asked every so often, by a newer generation of South Asians who have the privilege of seeing the world through today’s vacuum. Answering this question is exciting because it signifies the progress of the last two decades.