Actor Kal Penn on American elections, inclusive Obama and his favourite role
Kal Penn missed riding an autorickshaw through the busy streets of Delhi this time — like he did in a colourful video that went viral in the winter of 2015.
“It’s remarkable, considering that PM Modi is conservative while Obama is progressive and their politics couldn’t be more different in some ways; but in other ways they really like each other and get along really well,” says Penn, who was a prominent member of Obama’s delegation when he was the chief guest at the Republic Day parade last year.
Political Inclinations Penn was in Himachal Pradesh, wrapping up the shoot for producer Guneet Monga’s film, The Ashram, a “mystic thriller” about gurus, a lost girl and the Himalayas. But something presumably far more nail-biting is unfolding across the US: the presidential primaries. Penn has strongly voiced his differences with the campaign of presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. “I believe, most Americans don’t agree with Donald Trump’s racist, anti-women and anti-LGBT views,” he said.
Penn threw his hat in the ring for Democrat Senator Bernie Sanders in January and says he would continue supporting him. He, however, shied away from replying to ET Magazine’s question on whether he would proactively support Hillary Clinton if she won the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. “I hate answering that question because nobody has won enough delegates yet and I feel that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. I plan to help whoever is supporting President Obama’s programmes,” he said.
Diwali with Obama Penn got actively associated with Obama’s 2008 campaign, thanks to a serendipitous strike in Hollywood. “I had the chance to get involved because there was a writers’ strike in California,” says Penn, who became part of the national arts policy committee. In fact, after Obama was elected for the first term, Penn’s character Dr Lawrence Kutner in the popular TV show House was killed off as the actor was invited to take up a job in the White House, as the US president’s liaison to the arts groups and Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. He has held several positions in Obama’s campaigns and administration, including co-chair of Obama’s reelection campaign.
As a White House staffer, one of Penn’s first and most challenging assignments was helping Obama light the traditional diya and celebrate Diwali at the White House — the first US president to do so. “One of the first things that I worked on at the White House was helping the president with the Diwali celebrations. No other sitting president had done it before and he asked me to personally put it together,” recalls Penn. “The event was not just restricted to prominent Indian doctors and wealthy folks.”
Obama didn’t want to invite just the Indian American dignitaries for his first festival of lights but wanted to reach out to a diverse section of people such as taxi workers and those working at women’s shelters for South Asian American community. “It was an incredible opportunity for me to interact with members of the Indian American community across the board,” he says, adding that it became an eye-opening and learning experience. “Not only did you have the US president celebrating Diwali for the first time, but he was doing it in an inclusive manner.”
The Namesake Penn, born and raised in New Jersey to Gujarati immigrant parents, changed his name Kalpen Suresh Modi for the sake of his Hollywood career. US ambassador to India Richard Verma mentioned the actor’s Indian roots and how he was inspired in his political career by his Indian grandparents who had been part of the freedom movement.
Penn has some last-minute work in Delhi, following up on various programmes that he had been initiated into as a member of Obama’s team last year. He visited a camp at Shastri Market near Moti Bagh in the capital — run by the US Agency for International Development and Indian partners in support of the Swachh Bharat campaign — and the Tata Group’s smart grid lab in Rohini, a site to showcase smart-grid tech in partnership between Tata Power and US companies.
Penn has been a familiar face on TV shows and movies — from the Harold & Kumar trilogy to the NatGeo series The Big Picture with Kal Penn — but what has been his favourite role? Gogol in Mira Nair’s film The Namesake, about a family travelling from India to the US. And Penn too has a flight to catch, an American election to get back to.