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How Kal Penn overcame race barriers in Hollywood

Kal Penn’s hilarious memoir shows how Asian American actors in Hollywood are still vulnerable because of their skin colour

Kal Penn in 'House MD'
Kal Penn in 'House MD'

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When Kal Penn released his biography in November, he took legions of fans by surprise with the announcement that he is gay. The 44-year-old Indian-American actor, who featured in People magazine’s 2019 list of the sexiest men alive, has chosen the vehicle of a tell-all, no-holds-barred memoir to talk about his sexuality and to introduce us to his fiancé, Josh, with whom he has gone steady for 11 years.

You Can’t Be Serious, published by Simon & Schuster, takes us through the peaks and troughs of Penn’s trajectory as an actor as well as a person of colour and exposes fresh truths about the racialized consciousness in America. Telling his story with self-deprecating candour, irrepressible wit and unmistakable intelligence, he opens his heart to readers and shares how he has broken barriers and stereotypes on his journey to be an artist, much against the advice of his aunties and school guidance counsellors who wanted him to become a doctor or choose a more “practical profession”.

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When it comes to his personal life, though, Penn is more circumspect—all we learn about Josh is his first name and some skeletal details about the man the actor has gone steady with since their first date at a dive bar. While telling his sweet little love story, he takes due care to remain respectful and fiercely protective of the privacy of his partner; unlike him, Josh is not a public figure, and prefers to stay away from the limelight. In a short, fleeting chapter towards the end of the book, he recounts how he met Josh during his two-year stint as an aide in the Barack Obama administration when he was living a “multifaceted life” in Washington D.C. We are told that Josh comes from a small, rural town in Mississippi and has a “distinctively southern accent,” which makes him pronounce oil fire as ‘ohlfaar’. He has a relaxed, laid-back personality and is given to understated one-liners.

Penn spends little time explicating how and why he chose to come out so late in his life. He makes no comment on queerness among Asians in America nor does he dwell on his anxieties about being accepted or his intentions to receive solidarity from the community.

'You Can’t Be Serious', by Kal Penn, Simon & Schuster, 384 pages,  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>699
'You Can’t Be Serious', by Kal Penn, Simon & Schuster, 384 pages, 699

What Penn does tell us is the story of his upbringing from his perspective, his venturing into the arts, and his journey from playing a goofy, bumbling and marijuana-craving Asian-American trying to find his way to White Castle in the first of the Harold & Kumar films in 2004 to working in the White House as an associate director in the Office of Public Engagement between 2009 and 2011. Working as Obama’s liaison to the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) community, Penn’s contribution to the LGBTQ community was to campaign against US government’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Policy that prohibited gays and lesbians from serving openly in the military; it was eventually repealed by Congress.

Born Kalpen Suresh Modi in the diverse town of New Jersey to Indian immigrants originally from Gujarat, he decided to major in theatre at UCLA to pursue his “crazy acting dream”. It was a decision that alienated Penn—who writes that he’d often been bullied by white children in school—from the other Indian-American students in New Jersey, most of whom had their eyes set on being doctors or engineers. Early in his career he was made to realise that he needed a catchier and more assimilation-friendly name, and switched to Kal Penn to attract the attention of (mostly white) casting directors.

Exposed to racism since kindergarten, Penn writes how his tormentors were invariably inspired by the stereotypical, dehumanized Asian characters in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom (1984), The Simpsons and Sixteen Candles (1984). He decided to be an actor after he was cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz in school, his comic timing winning over the teenaged audience. “The very same kids who spit on us and kicked our asses while quoting Apu and Indiana Jones... we just changed their minds using the same techniques those TV shows and movies used—humour and art. Comedy can bring people together and change how they feel,” he writes.

Hollywood has a long tradition of white actors playing Asian characters in brownface or yellowface, including Peter Sellers as an unknown Indian actor in Blake Edwards’ 1968 comedy The Party. Having grown up watching American sitcoms like The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Full House and Family Matters, Penn got a glimpse of “the other side of cinema” when he watched Mira Nair’s Mississippi Masala (1992), the story of complicated immigrant parents navigating complicated lives in America. Fifteen years later, Nair cast him as Gogol, the American-born son of Indian immigrants, in The Namesake (2007), for which Penn would parlay his own experience.

One of the key takeaways from Penn’s memoir is his weariness with even big players in TV and cinema rarely looking beyond an actor’s race: “Racial signifiers are artistically boring because they mean that a character rarely has agency. Everything is tied to identity.” The stereotypical characters based on race, Penn argues, don’t advance the plot: “They just function to serve the arcs of white characters. Stereotypical representation is dehumanizing when it removes the full breadth of what it means to be a living, breathing, multidimensional person with traits that are independent of identity.” Elsewhere, he tells us: “Hollywood can be a place that sees you in ways that you don’t see yourself... An actor’s job is to emote, but in the face of racism, it becomes necessary to put on what others see as a professional game face while burying feelings of anger and rage. It’s emotionally draining, creatively suffocating.”

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Penn’s exasperation is not only his; it is something all actors of Asian descent share. The past few years have seen an increasing number of Asian-Americans writing their memoirs, from Mindy Kaling, who is of Indian origin, to Ali Wong of Chinese and Vietnamese descent. Humour is the thread that binds these memoirs of love, life and showbiz. The undercurrent, however, remains how identity frames, shapes and reshapes these actors’ work life. Despite their accomplishments, they remain vulnerable because of their skin colour, having to negotiate the minefield of casting discrimination in an industry that treats Asian-Americans as fundamentally different, alien and unknowable.

As he is in his mid-forties, the canvas of Penn’s lived experiences is not too broad, just like Kaling’s or Wong’s. But, at 384 pages, his book is the longest. He seems poised to orient himself in a cerebral mould, presenting himself as an actor who means business, someone who will always hang around till a role tight as hell comes to him—always curious, always willing to evolve and learn from his experiences, good or bad.

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