In a 2019 episode of the popular podcast ‘Armchair Expert’ with Dax Sheppard, actor Kal Penn recounted the first time he met writer/director Jon Hurwitz, the man who, along with Hayden Schlossberg, would end up co-creating the hugely popular Harold and Kumar franchise.
“[Hurwitz] came up to me and said something like, ‘Woah, you don’t have an Indian accent’,” Penn says. While the intentions of the now famous filmmaker may have been to outline an attribute of Penn’s personality that would prove integral to his casting in the Harold and Kumar films, Penn did not take this comment well.
“I remember saying something like ‘you sound like an a*****e,” Penn says. At the time, neither Penn nor Hurwitz could have realised that their awkward encounter would lead to Penn and the filmmakers developing the now immortal character of Kumar Patel in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.
Hidden in the crevices of this stoner comedy about the wacky misadventures of two best friends of Asian/South-Asian origin is, in my opinion, one of the most crucially nuanced representations of South Asian characters in American films.
With a single night fuelled by drugs, sex and an insatiable desire to consume the holy grail of comedy fast food – the White Castle burger – Kumar manages to become a character that would set the standard for generations of filmmakers looking to include South Asian characters in their productions.
Kumar, just as Hurwitz explained to Penn when they first met, does not speak with an Indian accent. Born in New Jersey, neither Kumar nor Kal Penn would have had the opportunity to develop one. The fact that this role came fast on the heels of Penn’s role as the almost caricatural Taj Mahal Badalandabad (I know, right?) in the hugely popular Van Wilder franchise exposes, by means of stark contrast, the high quality of representation that Kumar Patel provides.
Just like real life, his Jersey accent does not exempt Kumar from being the victim of accent-based bullying. A group of thrill-seeking adventure junkies, who constantly harass the titular duo, mock him with taunts of “thank you, come again”, the popular catchphrase of Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from The Simpsons. An aggressive police officer chides him for not having a “Good ol’ American name like Dave or Jim”.
The difference between Kumar and Apu is that Kumar isn’t the target of the joke. The outward racism and ignorance of the white characters who bully Kumar is what is put on trial here, and both end up facing their comeuppance – the police officer gets indicted on charges of racial abuse and the adventure junkies, it is implied, are put away for the possession of illicit substances.
Kumar is also not sex-shy. He seeks out sexual encounters in the same way a white lead in a stoner comedy would. At the same time, however, Kumar isn’t deprived of sexual opportunities.
At least twice in the film, Kumar is presented as an enticing sexual option for characters over other white counterparts (including a sexually charged recreation of a scene in Van Wilder in which Penn wipes the sweat off of Ryan Reynolds’ forehead, but with the roles reversed).
Kumar does not stereotypically confine himself to eating spicy Indian food – after all, the movie does centre around his quest to consume burgers. While eating the White Castle burgers, Kumar ends up representing the attainment of the idea of the American Dream (seriously, he makes a whole speech about it). As Anita Mannur points out in her 2009 book Culinary Fictions: Food in South Asian Diasporic Culture, by consuming the burgers at White Castle, one of the oldest fast food chains in the US, Kumar becomes seen as a consumer of American culture rather than being viewed as a provider of an “exotic” experience to white audiences.
Kumar does not need a white saviour to introduce him to the pleasures of American life. Unlike Taj, Kumar manages to get along just fine without the guidance of a Ryan Reynolds-esque guy to light the way. On the contrary, Kumar repeatedly acts as a guide for other characters in the film, guiding them to salvation in the form of romantic success or sexual gratification, a role normally reserved for the Daves and Jims of the American stoner comedy universe.
Kumar is far from a perfect character. He displays constant outbursts of racism (though none as problematic as the reckless use of the n-word by Penn’s character in his earlier film American Desi), he is openly homophobic and his attitude toward sex, true to American comedies, is far from healthy. The authenticity of Kumar, however, makes it possible for generations of Indian-Americans to watch a stoner comedy without having to watch someone who looks like them speak in a made-up accent, accidentally serve spicy food to their friends or inadvertently ruin their chances at any kind of sexual experience.
Perhaps the most important aspect about the character, however, is that, minus his aversion to pursuing medicine as a career ( fulfilling the model minority/academic overachiever South Asian cliche) he makes no effort to actively distance himself from his Indianness. In fact, the constant harassment and discrimination encountered by Penn throughout the film amplifies the validity of his experience as an Indian-American individual.
Kumar has no need to lean on lazy stereotypes or outlandish ideas of immigrant personalities to establish his South-Asianness, his very real lived experiences do that for him. In his un-Indianness then, Kumar becomes one of the realest depictions of Indian-ness in Hollywood ever written, inspiring generations of South Asian performers including, by his own admission, Hasan Minhaj, former Daily Show reporter and presently the host of Patriot Act on Netflix.
So how does a film written by two caucasian men end up painting such a realistic portrait of the second generation South Asian immigrant experience? Creators Jon Hurwitz and Hayden Schlossberg credit this accuracy to the foundations of the character lying in their experiences in an ethnically diverse New Jersey school. The characters didn’t rely on stereotypes because they were backed by years of experiential source material.
Penn’s (and possibly Kumar’s) experiences living in a post-9/11 America also added to the authenticity of the character, in all likelihood. As Vijay Prashad puts it, the emergence of politically aware South Asians in a post 9/11 American turned them into “representative public figures”, laying on their shoulders the burden of authenticity of representation.
Penn seems to have taken this burden with great seriousness, transitioning from acting to serving as associate director in the Office of Public Engagement at the Obama-era White House, followed by several years of campaigning for Barack Obama alongside his return to acting in shows such as How I met Your Mother.
Penn, who goes by his real name Kalpen Modi in his political life, even makes a cheeky reference to his role in the White House in the third Harold and Kumar film, where the character of Kumar makes a passing comment on how ridiculous the notion of him working at the White House sounds.
While playing a stoner in search of fast food hardly seems like a likely springboard for a remarkable political stint, Kumar has managed to gain the respect of his peers and his audiences by inspiring authentic South Asians representation in a film through his portrayal of Kumar as well as South Asian representation in US politics through his involvement in two incredibly successful political campaigns.
At the end of the day, the reasons behind the development of Kumar’s character are probably more layered and complicated than what one can unpack in one article, but the significance of Kumar’s character cannot be overstated. The world, without a doubt, is better off for the time a young white man walked up to a young brown actor at a party and didn’t realise he was about to sound like an a*****e.
Ananya Gambhir is a writer based in London and New Delhi.
Featured image credit: New Line Cinema