Kal Penn and the art of surviving Hollywood stereotypes

Published: 07 April, 2020 08:21 IST | IANS | Mumbai

Kal Penn says there was a time when people of colour didn't have the luxury to have a company ensuring right casting and representation, and is glad that things are changing

Kal Penn. Pic/AFP
Kal Penn. Pic/AFP

Kal Penn has lived through Hollywood's phase of stereotypes and understands what it means to not see yourself being truly represented on TV. The Hollywood actor of Indian origin says there was a time when people of colour didn't have the luxury to have a company ensuring right casting and representation, and is glad that things are changing. He hopes his animated show "Mira, Royal Detective", will weave around with the Indian culture and traditions, adds velocity to the shifting attitude of the West.

Asked how the show will change things in the West with respect of diversity or ethnicity, Kal told IANS: "I don't know if this is indicative of any dramatic change in the west or in the industry, though I hope it leads to that."

"But I really want to give credit to the creators and Disney for wanting to do it right. When doing an animated show, a lot of cynics will be of the mind that a show can be set anywhere and not be culturally accurate with performers of that background, I understand that. But I also understand never seeing yourself being represented on TV and that was me, we never saw that. When you feel things happening that were impossible to you and this cannot be explained to those who have always seen them being depicted on TV," added the actor, who found fame through his character of Kumar Patel in the "Harold & Kumar" film series.

Kal continued: "We never had that luxury and a company like Disney making sure that the casting and the representation is accurate... Right from language to the visuals, it is a lot of effort and budget that other companies may not have given. So, I think it is a huge leap forward and I hope it is indicative of a lot more to come. Secondly, it gives a better show that kids can watch and learn better things from."

Reflecting back early on in his own career, Kal said: "My first audition was probably 20 years back or more. Some of my first auditions were for characters that were more stereotypical. There are still plenty of those around. In a few auditions, I was asked to talk in the accent of Apu, where it was not even voiced by a South-Asian actor. So I think of those and then shows like 'Mira...', it is a giant leap in not that long span of a time. It feels really great and I'm proud that my nieces and nephews will get to watch it."

Born to Indian immigrant parents in the US, his real name is Kalpesh Suresh Modi, but is known by his stage name Kal Penn. He has featured in projects such as "The Namesake", "Son of the Mask", "Superman Returns", "24", "House", "How I Met Your Mother", "New Girl", "The Big Bang Theory", "Designated Survivor" and "Sunnyside".

In 2009, he took a two-year sabbatical from acting to work for the then US President Barack Obama in the White House Office of Public Engagement.

Now, he has lent his voice for the character of a mongoose Mikku -- a friend of Mira. Set in the fictional land of Jalpur, "Mira, Royal Detective" follows the life of Mira, a commoner who is appointed to the role of royal detective by the queen.

The series features an all-star cast of prominent South Asian actors including Jameela Jamil, Freida Pinto, Hannah Simone, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Aasif Mandvi and Aparna Nancherla amongst others. It also introduced 16-year-old newcomer Leela Ladnier as the voice of Mira. The show airs in India on Disney Channel India.

Talking about the show, Kal said: "When I first heard about the show, read the script, I was selfishly very excited towards it. I would get to do something for kids, because my earlier works (comedy or drama) were not that child friendly. And now, I have nieces and nephews so that was quite exciting to me. Next was obviously the whole South Asian cast and that it takes place in a fictional land of India, that was real fun. Then, I came to know the South Asian American performers as the cast that was a rarity in any kind of art (action or cartoon)."

"So I think it was a perfect combination. My character Mikku is super adorable and he wears these glasses and I was like, it is going to be the most fun and at the same time a meaningful project to be a part of," he added.

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