Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mr. Modi Goes to Washington

If you’re a fan of "House" and/or consume any mainstream news media, you probably know by now that Indian-American actor Kal Penn is going to Washington. He’ll be the associate director of the White House Office of Public Liaison, which will focus on outreach to young people, arts professionals and the Asian American community. I’m curious about what he'll be doing on a daily basis, but I’m also curious about whether he’ll go back to using his given name: Kalpen Modi.

In case you’ve read or seen “The Namesake,” I’m not talking about his “good name.” That’s a name given to a baby by a family member (usually a grandparent) and used by family members and in certain Hindu ceremonies. We’ll probably never know Kalpen Modi’s good name unless he decides to share it with the world, which would be akin to a Catholic film star talking about their confirmation name – it’s just not necessary.

Back before he hit it big, Modi hacked his first name in half to create a stage name, and put it on his resume and head shot to see if his friends were right about the appeal of an anglicized name in a white man’s industry. His audition callbacks went up by 50 percent, leading to roles in “Van Wilder 2: The Rise of Taj,” “24” and of course “Harold & Kumar go to White Castle.”

He has a few film credits under his full name – one for production assistant for the New Jersey unit on “Harold and Kumar,” but tellingly, another for Gogol/Nikhil in “The Namesake.” Modi came up with the idea of Gogol and Nikhil being credited separately as Kal Penn and Kalpen Modi, and director Mira Nair loved it.

I’m hoping he goes back to using his full name in his new role – he says he prefers it, and since part of his job is to reach out to Asian-Americans, I would think the change would give him greater credibility with that population. Certainly the original purpose of the switch – to help him break into the business – has been accomplished.

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