Kal Penn qualifies as one of the very few Indian-American actors of Gujarati heritage working in Hollywood. He was born Kalpen Suresh Modi on April 23, 1977, in Montclair, NJ, to an engineer father and a mother employed as a fragrance sampler for a perfume manufacturer. Modi bravely and intelligently cut against the grain of social expectations as a child, rejecting the prompting of his peers to join the soccer team, and instead joining the school drama team. Though allegedly mocked by classmates for his decision, Penn changed everyone's mind with his performance in a school production of The Wiz, and received a standing ovation for his work in that production -- no mean accomplishment for a beginner.
During elementary school and junior high, Modi felt struck, again and again, by the crass Indian stereotypes perpetuated in Hollywood films, specifically in movies such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) and 1986's Short Circuit, in which Caucasian actor Fisher Stevens plays the Indian-American Ben Jabituya for comic relief. Quietly vowing to work against this trend, Modi actually spent years attaining the box-office clout to make it happen. After his secondary school education (first at New Jersey's Howell High, then at Freehold Township High), Modi trained intensely as a dramatist on the Manhattan theatrical circuit, then attended UCLA as a drama major in the mid-'90s, and simultaneously started to land television parts right and left, in such series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, and Spin City. At about that time, he took the advice of friends and family, and -- though initially reluctant to do so -- anglicized his name, changing it to Kal Penn. As a result, he later reported, job offers escalated by 50 percent.
Penn made his feature debut coming in the 1999 culture-clash drama Freshmen. A supporting role in the independent romantic comedy American Desi (2001) quickly followed -- ironically, an exploration of race and identity, about an Indian-American boy, Krishna (Deep Katdare), who moves away from home and changes his name to Kris to disguise his ethnicity, but finds himself saddled with several roommates of like heritage. Penn plays Ajay, an Indian student who has immersed himself in black ("Afrocentric") behavior. The film received extremely limited U.S. theatrical bookings in the spring of 2001 and fair reviews from the critics who saw it.
Penn then jointed the cast of the Animal House-cloned gross-out farce National Lampoon's Van Wilder (2002), about a seventh-year senior (Ryan Reynolds) threatened by his father's (Tim Matheson) decision to cut off his seemingly unlimited allowance. Widely drubbed as unfunny, the picture did embarrassing box office and opened and closed in one month, but its A-list issue nonetheless gave Penn (who plays Van's Indian friend, Taj Mahal Badalandabad) with his highest-profile exposure to date.
Penn's onscreen activity escalated meteorically from 2003 through 2006, with the young actor averaging around seven or eight first-run features per year, and ascending to higher and higher credit billings. Most notably, he co-starred as Kumar (alongside fellow Gen-Xer John Cho) in 2004's stoner comedy Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, a surprise sleeper hit (and recipient of many enthusiastic notices) about two buddies, an Asian-American banker and an Indian-American medical student, whose unstoppable quest to find some White Castle hamburgers gives way to an epic road trip. Penn also delivered a brief supporting turn as Stanford, a henchman of Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) in 2006's Superman Returns. Meanwhile, Penn made an indelible impression on the small screen as well, as Harrison in the 2004 NBC 9/11 NBC drama Homeland Security.
Penn was less effective in the ill-advised 2006 sequel National Lampoon's Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj, an installment that -- per its title -- finds Penn's Taj Mahal Badalandabad carrying Van's off-the-wall hijinks to Camden University in England. Penn subsequently signed on for an additional sequel, 2007's Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, which finds the boys of the title mistaken for terrorists when they attempt to slip a bong aboard a flight to Amsterdam. That same year, Penn would headline Epic Movie, a massively scaled attempt to "send up" the Hollywood fantasy epic, Airplane! style,and join the cast of Fox's hit series thriller 24, during its sixth season. A Very Harold and Kumar Christmas followed in 2011, with concurrent roles in television's How I Met Your Mother and House guaranteeing continued small screen exposure between big screen outings.