For any millennial popular culture aficionado coming of age within the early 2000s, raunchy Hollywood comedies like American Pie, Superbad, EuroTrip, and Van Wilder have been must-watch canon, due to all the pieces they provided up about life, love, friendship, and intercourse (in fact). Most of them have been extremely white (and problematic), a illustration of a time when ‘illustration’ was nothing however an English phrase. However, in 2002, in a type of movies, out of nowhere, a desi dude popped up.
The eponymous Van Wilder’s sex-starved nerdy good friend, named Taj Mahal Badalandabad by (clearly) white writers, was performed by Indian American Kal Penn, who made each a mark and an impression, not simply as one of many first-ever brown actors (outdoors of homegrown Kabir Bedi and Amrish Puri or Indian-origin Sarita Chaudhary and Indira Varma, amongst others), in a business Hollywood comedy, but in addition as a legit comedic pressure of nature. His supporting function in Van Wilder was adopted by a lead function alongside the superior John Cho in, what’s as we speak a cult traditional, Harold & Kumar Go to White Citadel, and the remainder, is historical past (and historic!).
So, when it turned out that one of many OGs, now 45-year-old Penn (who was born Kalpen Modi), was internet hosting a panel at a convention I used to be attending in New York, I knew that I had to discover a method to converse with him! I reached out to his administration, to the convention organisers, into his DMs… and when nothing else labored, reached out to my expensive good friend, the superb producer Guneet Monga, to attach me to him. Penn immediately (and sweetly) replied that he’d be blissful to catch up, and shortly after, I sat down for a heart-to-heart with him about all the pieces from life and comedy to Indian meals.
Out of the shade
I first needed to find out about his ideas on illustration as we speak, when brown faces appear much more ubiquitous in Hollywood than ever earlier than. Is he pleased with the place issues are actually?
“I bear in mind this sort of query got here up even when Aishwarya Rai did Oprah… everybody needed to know if we’ve got arrived,” Penn chuckles. “I feel what’s fantastic concerning the final 5 to eight years, is that there are such a lot of producers, writers, community executives, creators and actors as we speak than there have been 20 years in the past. However, to me, the great thing about what we do as artistes is that there’s at all times an countless variety of tales that may be advised, and an countless variety of characters and lives that folks can work together with.”
I prod him additional on whether or not he nonetheless encounters the sort of caricature-ish characters that have been provided to him and that he talks about by means of some hilarious (and typically upsetting) tales in his just lately launched must-read memoir, You Can’t Be Critical.
“You solely should activate the TV to see the variety as we speak, and that progress is in no small half due to an viewers that’s hungry for characters that aren’t stereotypes,” Penn thoughtfully solutions. “And whereas it’s a must to chortle at how absurd a few of my (earlier encounters) have been, I don’t need us to neglect that that form of origin story isn’t just of me, however of at the very least two generations of Asian American and South Asian actors, whose names we could by no means know as family names. Not as a result of they didn’t go to drama college or weren’t extremely gifted, however as a result of it’s been a systemic downside for thus very lengthy. That was my level of telling these tales, as a result of they’re additionally their tales.”
As we converse of tales, I ask him how he feels concerning the challenges that storytelling, artwork and comedy—all three domains that he’s navigated with a lot ease—face as we speak, in a polarised world with an ever-angry viewers tweeting on-line, and with each second comic lamenting about ‘cancel tradition’. Is he hopeful about their future?
Talking about comedy first, Penn dissects the issue, “You understand, I’ve heard even administrators saying, ‘Oh, I can’t make the films I used to anymore, as a result of you may’t make jokes anymore.’ And my first thought is, ‘Oh effectively, it seems like possibly you don’t have the expertise or talent to adapt to a altering viewers.’ Like, in case your job is to make individuals chortle, be sure that your shit’s humorous.”
“Even my job is to inform jokes and that’s what I like to do,” he provides. “And I feel there’s by no means been a greater time to be humorous, and I don’t assume any matter is off-limits. I simply assume there are some regressive jokes that we’ve been advised 1,000,000 instances earlier than. However each comic has each proper to say what they need, and if individuals don’t like that, they’ve the precise to let that comic know!”
As to the concept of ‘indignant followers’, Penn’s reply is refreshing, and his analysis exceedingly easy: “Simply get off of Twitter,” he says. “In my expertise, I feel it’s one or two individuals who get indignant (as a result of they’re bored), after which a media outlet writes an article on that as a result of they need a bunch of advert income from the clicks, and it immediately appears that everybody’s indignant. However should you see how profitable so many reveals are as we speak, and the way a lot variety there may be, it turns this premise on its head. I at all times really feel like once you speak to the precise followers and listen to them out, their perspective isn’t from a spot of anger.”
From anger, we pivot to like, and I ask him about his love story along with his associate, Josh, that he’s written about in essentially the most candid, humorous and healthful of how in his e-book. Did he count on the outpouring of affection and headlines about what many perceived to be, his official ‘popping out’?
“I used to be maybe naive in not recognising that that chapter could overtake all the pieces else,” Penn says. “As a result of to me, it was what my editors referred to as a palate cleanser, a few first date that goes incorrect and an 11 yr previous relationship since. The one purpose I hadn’t shared a lot about Josh or my dad and mom and brother earlier, is as a result of they don’t have careers within the public eye, and I needed to respect their privateness. When writing the e-book, I simply needed to share my expertise as in truth as doable. So, I requested them, ‘Can I inform among the ridiculous tales about our relationship?’, they usually stated, ’Positive!’ and that’s all that went in there.”
Of all of the experiences, one of many funniest ones Penn wrote about was with an Indian producer who invited him to shoot in India however saved delaying funds, and finally turned out to be related to some sort of a mafia (!). I joke with Penn if, after one thing like that, he’s nonetheless eager on working in India.
“Hey, I suppose individuals do enterprise in several methods somewhere else,” Penn laughs. “However I’ve had nothing however unimaginable experiences in India outdoors of that. And I’d like to work with a streaming platform there! I’d like to be in one thing like Delhi Crime, which is so nuanced. Don’t get me incorrect, I might like to lip sync and dance, however my favourites are one thing like Kapoor and Sons, which had phenomenally humorous scenes, but in addition loads of dire circumstances. Oh and I positively wish to work with my good friend Zoya (Akhtar). She’s so unimaginable! And Guneet, something along with her.”
Penn clearly has a deep fondness for India, and one of many extra emotional components of the e-book is about his grandparents, who had marched with Mahatma Gandhi, and his grandfather, who was a freedom fighter himself. What’s his relationship with India now, I’m curious.
“A lot of my worth system comes from my grandparents, and it’s at all times fed my need to do work within the realm of public service, and in doing the precise factor. And I wish to proceed that custom when it comes to my relationship with India too. I used to be actually honoured when President Obama invited me to go alongside his state go to to India just a few years in the past. I really like visiting India!”
The one factor that Penn says that he loves most about India is the meals!
“I imply, household’s at all times primary, proper? To have the ability to see my aunts and uncles and cousins. However anytime I come to Mumbai, I simply drop my stuff off, sneak out and get into an auto, and seize some Babaji’s at Juhu. And I velocity again, actual fast, so no one’s the wiser! I’ve hidden this from my family members for years as a result of in the event that they discover out, they’ll by no means let me do it as a result of they fear I’ll get sick. But it surely’s the danger that makes it so enjoyable, proper?”
I finish our dialog by asking him about hope, and what he discovered about what brings individuals collectively in his function in Barack Obama’s administration because the Affiliate Director of The White Home Workplace of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs.
“I learnt that anytime we begin to consider that our voices don’t matter, a complacency units in,” he says. “And individuals who don’t need us to vote need us to stay complacent. However, if we proceed to push ahead with issues that all of us care about, there may be actually nothing we will’t do.”
Nikhil Taneja is a author, producer, storyteller, public speaker, males’s psychological well being advocate, co-founder of Yuvaa and an HT Brunch columnist, whose column, That Feeling When, seems fortnightly
From HT Brunch, October 29, 2022
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