For most of my readers, he is that familiar face who lit up your 3 ams with his relatable hamburger tales. Kal Penn is an icon, a member of the White House, a successful Hollywood actor and someone who offered respite in the dragging sections of our favorite show ‘How I Met Your Mother’.
Ahead of his film, Bhopal : A Prayer For rain hitting the Indian screens, Kal met up with Koimoi for an elaborate chat about how Harol and Kumar’s empire and legacy he built, his upcoming film and how ethnicity has never affected his roles and his career. Here we go:
Q) Tell us something about your character in Bhopal.
My character in the film is a guy named Motwane who is loosely based on a journalist in Bhopal named Keswani. A few pretty big liberties were taken in the film. When the film kicks off, Motwane comes across as one ridiculous larger than life character. He creates headlines out of the most salacious thing that he can think of to sell. Over the course of the film, the character evolves over time to defy the crazy side of him. He discovers the discrepancies in the Union Carbide Factory and tries to make a difference but since he usually writes rubbish, nobody believes him that what’s happening in the factory could be a really dangerous thing. Initially it calls for him to look ridiculous and offer levity but in due course the film he does care deeply about his community and the city around. It is quite different from the kind of roles I have had a chance to play.
Q) Your character in the film needs to speak a good deal of Hindi. Slipping into that couldn’t have been easy for you.
Two months before the shoot began, I got my final script. I was in Los Angeles and hence I was pretty much preparing on my own, rehearsing by myself. During my first script reading session, I read out my first scene and the director says, ‘Acha. Abhi Hindi Mein.’ I don’t speak Hindi. I speak English and Gujarati. Since the script that came to me was in English, I didn’t think I will be required to train in Hindi. I was upto the challenge of learning the language firmly. A dialogue coach and a language coach helped me through with the learning. I didn’t want to do any injustice to the role. It is such a serious subject matter, the character is so complex, my focus was on ensuring that people won’t be distracted by the way this guy speaks.
Q) There is not one teenager in India who is well acquainted with Hollywood and has missed Harold and Kumar. Are you aware of your Indian fan base?
You know when we shot Harold and Kumar, we shot for no money. We thought it was very funny and we weren’t sure how many others thought the same. When the film released, it barely made a week. It did such bad business. We were sure no one liked our funny stint. But five months later, when the DVDs came out, we were a hit. It was more of a fan driven thing. The whole goal was to make people laugh and Indian audiences supporting us is a great thing to hear.
Q) Being a Sociology graduate helps you in doing a film like Bhopal? Does it provide you a more holistic picture of the incident and its consequences?
I think, yes but I don’t have much to compare it against. When we screened the film in New York, a lot of people had no knowledge something like this had happened. It was shocking because I had presumed everyone atleast has an idea about this. It sparked a lot of conversations about the causes and consequences of the incident. Such topics usually gravitate towards corporate greed and corruption of Indian government. Coming from Sociology helped me understand this as a systemic issue with everything from power to industrialization to international and environmental law to everything in between. It is a complex understanding and I hope we have covered all facts.
Q) How is your stint at the White House shaping up for you so far?
I loved having to work at the White House. I took A Two Years Sabbatical from acting. I knew I wasn’t going in for a clear transition or neither was I going to run for office for something like that. In 2007, I started volunteering for the Obama Campaign. Obama was down 40 points in the polls, people couldn’t get his name right and he was an Underdog Candidate. Because of a writers’ strike in Hollywood, I had nothing to shoot. So I went back to campaigning and teaching. I feel so blessed that despite taking a long break of 2 years, the audiences were still ready to take me back in their living room. I served in White from 2009 to 2011 and then came back to LA and worked on How I Met Your Mother. Working with Neil Patrick Harris was a ball. I don’t work Full Time at the White House anymore but I am still on the President’s Committee of Arts and Humanities. My inclination towards politics drew more from public service and less from politics. When I started involving myself in the Obama Campaign, I was neither a Democrat nor a Republican but I wanted to offer something to society and people. I never want to run for office but I don’t think I have it in me to run for office right now. I love being back to acting.
Q) Has your ethnicity ever got you typecast in a certain role type?
What I loved about the script was that the writers at no point shied away from the fact that Harold and Kumar are of Korean and Indian descent. They were two American kids who were getting high with friends and eating hamburgers. Ethnicity might be flavored in different parts of the film but it wasn’t the overt thing about it. ten years ago, this was almost groundbreaking to put out a movie is driven by friendship and not ethnicity. It’s a rare approach. The reason why I bagged Superman Returns was because of Harold and Kumar. They were sure if could be funny in a comic movie, I can pull off good in a superhero movie. I then bagged really cool 4 episode slot in 24 where I played a terrorist. I took a family hostage and with a gun, I loved it. I am terrified of all of it but if the actor in me could do convincingly enough, I am glad. I never got retained in a type. The reason why I got Namesake was because of Harold and Kumar too. Mira’s son pestered him to watch scenes of that film and I being a Jhumpa Lahiri fan went all out to grab that role, rather aggressively. I called Mira, got my agents to pester her but despite Harold and Kumar not exactly being Mira’s favorable kind of cinema, it worked.
Q) So being a Lahiri fan, will you go out as aggressively if the Lowland is converted into a film?
You know I will be a part of anything either Irrfan, or Tabu or Mira or Jhumpa ever do. You won’t even have to send me the script.