Pop Culture

Kal Penn: Hot, sexy and Indian-American

Every episode of the TV show “24” is fairly unsettling — that’s the shtick. But if January’s season premiere knocked viewers for a loop, it wasn’t Jack Bauer’s bedraggled post-Chinese prison appearance. Nor was it the way Bauer bit the throat of a captor “Lost Boys” style. In fact, everything the blond, blue-eyed CTU agent did was within the realm of viewer expectations.

The breathtaking moment in “24’s” opening episode had more to do with casting than script. Kal Penn, the easily recognizable Indian-American stoner from the movie “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle” played a not-so-friendly neighborhood terrorist. And frankly, it was weird.

It got weirder the following evening, on “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.” For that show, the affable Kumar — the charming Taj, from the National Lampoon’s “Van Wilder” movies — played a creepy, attention-starved murderer-rapist.

Penn’s starring roles in a series of broad teen comedies made it easy to imagine “SVU” detectives Stabler and Benson unlocking the character’s handcuffs and letting him go. “Sure he raped and killed those women … but it’s Kumar!”

Likewise, it was easy to picture “24’s” CTU agents storming the hostage house, only to drop their guns, smile and say, “Hey, it’s Kumar! I love that guy.”

Which, if you think about it, totally explains the sudden Kumar — I mean Penn — saturation. Turns out he’s the romantic lead in the movie adaptation of the winning novel, “The Namesake,” by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Jhumpa Lahiri. Unlike Penn’s larger body of work, this story of a first-generation Indian-American dealing with his Indian heritage, is free of juvenile jokes. No doubt both Penn and the studio executives behind “The Namesake” hope the dramatic chops Penn revealed on “24” and “SVU” will help viewers see beyond Kumar to the talented Penn as he truly is: Hollywood’s first Indian-American leading man.

Fighting stereotypesSucceeding in Hollywood is tough enough. But if you don’t have blond hair and blue eyes, getting a decent part is a jillion times harder. Of course, ever since Sept. 11, more acting jobs have opened up for those with brown hair, eyes and skin. Now, instead of auditioning as cab drivers and convenience store clerks, Asian actors with the right look can play terrorists as well.

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While Penn is one of many Indian-American actors to play a terrorist (as he did on “24”), he seems keenly aware of Hollywood’s built-in limitations. His career choices reveal an actor intent on breaking those boundaries. Take “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.” The 2004 comedy starred two under-represented minorities (Penn and John Cho) who spent the entire film hilariously busting stereotypes.

While “Harold and Kumar” is by no means an intellectual comedy, both Penn and Cho realized its importance at the time. Penn said in an interview with AsianWeek.com that when he and Cho first met, “one of the first conversations we had was about how significant this film was for us as Asian-Americans, and I think we both sighed with relief when we realized the other guy got it.”

Penn acknowledged his discomfort in a roll he took prior to “Harold & Kumar”: nerdy Taj in the 2002 movie “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder.” “My character was pretty much a sidekick, in some ways a stereotype even, and that bothered me off and on,” Penn said in an interview with rediff.com. When the opportunity came to play Taj as a lead in the 2006 sequel, “Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj,” Penn says he made sure that didn’t happen again. “I get to take a character that was stereotypical and make it well rounded and in a really funny way.”

Penn’s portray of Taj as a romantic and comedic lead was definitely effective. The same year “The Rise of Taj,” was released, People magazine named Penn one of the sexiest actors under the age of 30.

Slow change in HollywoodThere’s a telling scene in the 2002 comedy “The Guru,” which begins in India. A group of young Indian men tease the lead character when he tells them he’s going to move to the United States and become a star. They press him to name one Indian star in Hollywood, and the only name he can come up with is Apu, the animated store clerk on “The Simpsons.”

Four years later, things aren’t as dire for actors of Indian descent. The TV show “Lost” features Indian Brit Naveen Andrews as former Iraqi Republican guard Sayid. Parminder Nagra, another Indian Brit and star of “Bend It Like Beckham,” is a main character on “ER.” On the hit show “Heroes,” Indian-American Sendhil Ramamurthy plays Indian geneticist Mohinder Suresh. And of course there’s Penn, poised for A-list stardom with the release of “The Namesake.”

The success of films such as “Bend It Like Beckham” and “Bride and Prejudice,” as well the popularity of Bollywood, have raised audience interest in all things Indian. Unfortunately, however, the majority of Indian actors will be stuck playing cab drivers, store clerks and terrorists for a while. Penn acknowledged his success is an exception to the Hollywood casting rule. “Just because I have been fortunate in the past few years doesn’t mean that there is a huge sweeping change taking place,” he said in the rediff.com interview.

Whether “The Namesake” succeeds critically and/or financially means a lot for Penn’s career, and could open the door just a little bit more for other Asian actors hungering for decent parts. Still, those fans of Penn’s comedic work take heart. “Harold & Kumar Go to Amsterdam” hits theaters in 2008.

Helen A.S. Popkin is a New York-based freelance writer.

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