Kal Penn: 'You don't say no to serving your country..'

By HT

Mumbai, Oct. 24 -- We're waiting for the interview to begin. Kal Penn's recording a promotional video for his film. In Gujarati. There's a sense of deja vu.

It's not often that you meet a Hollywood actor twice, in India, talking about the same film he was shooting for five years back; and speaking in Gujarati. The first time we met was in Hyderabad, back in 2009. Kal was shooting for his film based on the Bhopal Gas Tragedy. People on the sets had started calling him "Kal Penn Bhai (his real name is Kalpen Modi)". And the actor would even humour them with a "kem chho? (how are you?)."

Since then, a lot has changed. The actor, arguably most famous for the stoner comedy series, Harold & Kumar, hung up his acting boots for two years to take up a job at the White House. A TV character he'd found a fair bit of fame for - Dr Kutner, on House MD - committed suicide abruptly, so he could take up that job. Two years later, in 2011, he jumped right back into acting.

You left a popular TV show for a job at the White House (from 2009 to 2011). Wasn't that a massive risk as an actor?

I believe it was. As artistes, if you're taking a sabbatical for a year or two, things obviously slow down. But when you have the opportunity to serve your country, you don't say no. I'd already been working on the President's campaign as a volunteer, on outreach to young people. That was the job I was offered at the White House. I was fortunate, of course, that when I came back, I was able to dive back in, and do movies (a third part of the Harold & Kumar series), and [the TV series], How I Met Your Mother.

Did you know that episodes of House from 2009 are being aired in India now? And that Dr Kutner just died?

Yeah, I know. I learnt that from Twitter last week. Suddenly, my feed was full of people talking about his death, and I was like, "Oh, that must have aired in India."

Is it true that you signed the film on Bhopal without knowing you'd have to speak Hindi?

It's true. I got the script two months before we started shooting. And it was in English. Then, while shooting, the director says, "Abhi Hindi mein (let's do it in Hindi now)". I was like, "What do you mean, 'Abhi Hindi mein.'? I don't speak Hindi." So, he says, "You know you're playing a character in Bhopal in the 1980s, right? He doesn't speak English." But I think I managed; there are similarities between Gujarati and Hindi.

You do realise you're now going to be judged here on how you speak the language.

Yes, of course. And they should judge me on that. My biggest concern was making sure it's authentic; that I didn't come off as some American kid pretending to be Indian.

Isn't it odd to be promoting a film five years after you shot it?

Well, I knew from the beginning that Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain was a small, indie film, so I wasn't expecting a blockbuster release. In a way, it's a good thing. The market for films like these has changed. Even in India, there are more films now with shorter narratives, without songs.

Back when you started out in Hollywood, as an actor of colour, did you feel that roles were limited? And has that changed now?

I think every actor feels that way when they are starting out. And you do tend to get typecast - whether you're a woman, or a performer of colour. There is more diversity now, with more actors from different backgrounds coming in. Overall, it's a better time to be an actor. There's more happening on TV. And the palate of the audience is also changing. Digital media enables us to see things from other places. The Lunchbox (2013), for instance, did well in India and abroad.

Speaking of which, you said five years ago that you would do a Bollywood film if offered.

I'm still waiting for that offer.