Kal Penn is known for playing Kumar in the Harold and Kumar movies, and for his roles on House, Designated Survivor, and more. His career has been going quite well for a number of years now. But like most actors, this was not always the case.
In March 2017, Penn revealed that he found some of the scripts he got in his early days as an actor. For instance, there was this one which had characters including a Ghandi Lookalike and Snake Charmers. After finding the scripts, Penn felt the need to share.
Penn was born in New Jersey, but his parents came over to America from India. However, when cast in a part, he was often asked to play a stereotype or speak with an exaggerated accent. There was definitely a pattern emerging to how they expected him to play these parts.
For some shows, producers were counting on the accent to make things funny, instead of having it be funny on its own. For this show, they didn't seem to give much thought to the character of Parmeshi, other than the fact that he's Indian and says stuff about India.
Penn's real name is Kalpen Suresh, but he changed it early in his career after being told a more American-sounding name would get him more roles. He was reluctant to do so, but eventually chose the name Kal Penn. The name change led to a 50% increase in jobs.
Penn lamented playing a character who simply went by the name of "Foreign Student." Is "Foreign" really the only way you could tell this student apart from other students? But don't worry. The character did eventually get a name...
It turned out that the name of "Foreign Student" was being withheld so a joke about it could be made later. It would be easy to dismiss any of these as isolated instances if there was only one example. But instead, the scripts keep coming.
Yes, it happened again. For many shows, when they have an Indian character, it seems they can only think of jokes that involve the characters name (even if someone else is being presented as the butt of the joke).
For Penn, the jokes about an Indian character's name never seemed to stop. But eventually he started getting parts that didn't rely on stereotypes. And from there, he even moved onto a new career altogether.
However, Penn wasn't tweeting the old scripts to simply complain. Penn also praised other projects he worked on where he could play more fully fleshed-out characters, instead of ones who were designed as easy stereotypes. These shows and movie prove that it can be done.