Kal Penn speaks on Asian-American stereotypes

    “He’s Kumar, dude. How can you not like him?” asked a boy sitting behind me.

    Taking on a more serious tone than that of characters he is famous for, the actor who played Kumar Patel in 2004’s Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle discussed the need to break Asian stereotypes in the media on Tuesday evening in the Ryan Family Auditorium.

    Kal Penn said Asian-Americans currently on-screen are always locked into certain parts. Asian-American men, Penn claims, are always “one-dimensional buffoons,” citing such movies as Sixteen Candles and Short Circuit as examples where the characters are flat and lacking any depth.

    Penn is trying to change that perception. When filming Harold and Kumar, he didn’t think that the film would become the cult classic it is today. The movie’s success brought different reactions about the portrayal of the lead characters, both Asian-Americans. Some viewers, including South Asian Sisters, a group dedicated to the progression of South Asian women in society, saw the film as encouraging stereotypes.

    “We sat back waiting to be empowered,” the group wrote in an open letter regarding the movie. “Well it’s the next day and we’re still waiting.”

    Penn saw the film as just the opposite, citing the fact that the title roles were filled by Asians in a society in which “there is a void of Asian-Americans on screen.”

    Additionally, he said that the character of Kumar had nothing to do with his ethnicity.

    “It’s not because he’s Indian that he’s a stoner,” he said. “The audience won’t care what [the actors] look like as long as a show is good or funny.”

    Penn said that it is the responsibility of the students as consumers to break stereotypes.

    “If we don’t do things like that ourselves, we can’t expect things to change,” he said.

    So what is in the future for Penn? After the premiere of Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj, the sequel to 2002’s Van Wilder, he takes a more serious turn in The Namesake. He wants more diverse roles, but don’t expect him to go to Bollywood anytime soon.

    “I would do a foreign movie – just not the song and dance stuff,” he said.

    This event was sponsored by the South Asian Student Alliance and funded by the Student Activities Fund.


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