Kal's Tomorrow


Taj is coming to a theater near you! All those who saw the 2002 cult hit National Lampoon’s Van Wilder will remember the desi character Taj, played by Kal Penn. Now a sequel is opening, this time with Taj center stage in his own movie! It’s titled ‘National Lampoon’s Van Wilder: The Rise of Taj’ which will open in theaters this month. We caught up with the very hot, very in-demand Kal Penn for the Little India Dozen

Q. For those who haven’t seen the first Van Wilder film what can you tell them about Taj?


A: The character in the first film was a sort of side-kick exchange student who comes to America and wants to live the debaucherous American college lifestyle and in the second film he actually plays himself four years later, but has come into his own as an individual and teaches other people about the quintessential American college experience, but he goes to London to do it.

Q. So this is great, in the first movie you were the sidekick and now you’re the main guy!

A: Exactly. So it’s a spin off from the first film.

Q. What does this tell you about audiences that they are open to having South Asians as the main character?

A: I think that’s interesting you ask that, because in the first film you obviously had a very stereotypical sidekick character and audiences responded to him. But I think what they responded to about it was the potential for that character to have his own film and to follow him as a human being instead of a sort of one-dimensional stereotype.

Q. So what is Taj up to in this new movie?

A: In the new movie he goes to grad school to study British history and thinks he’s going to be in a secret society that his dad was in. Through a series of mishaps he ends up being a resident advisor to a dorm of really awkward British freshmen who he teaches how to be cool in their own individual way and he also fights his nemesis, a relative of the Queen, whose grandfather used to colonize India so there’s a lot of humor based on overcoming that nemesis.

Q. So South Asians will relate a lot to it?

A: I think so. There are definitely a lot of jokes that are very South Asian specific. It will be fun for audiences of all backgrounds to see the reverse: you are so used to seeing the Indian guy in the quickie mart, but now it’s the Indian character who’s driving the film and it’s the British characters who are taking the back seat.

Q. You’re playing such different roles in ‘The Return of Superman’ and ‘The Namesake’. How do you get in and out of character? And how was it playing the bad guy in Superman?

A: We’ve usually got a couple of weeks in between the films so it’s not difficult. It was a great experience playing the bad guy. It’s kind of boring playing the good guy all the time!

Q. Isn’t Taj very different from what you’d expect a stereotypical student of Indian origin to be?

A: Yes, and that’s what I like about the character. He is very much not a stereotype that you might find on the Simpsons, for example, or on Seinfeld. He is the guy who, like anyone who comes to America and was not born here, is following the American dream. Any kid in college gets a little debaucherous at times and it was important to show him as one of those kids. I think it’s boring to play a stereotype

Q. So in a way it’s a triumph to not be the nerdy kid at the computer all the time?


A: It is. The triumph over all is the opportunity to play a character who started out as a stereotype and is branching out. In real life everyone goes through changes so it’s cool to play a character who goes through changes.

Q. What else do you have coming up besides the Mira Nair film ‘Namesake’?

A: I’ve got a guest role on Fox Television’s Emmy award winning series 24 premiering in January. It’s really an awesome opportunity. I had a lot of fun working on it.

Q. Do you have a lucky talisman that you take on the sets?

A: I had a rock that said “Freedom” on it. It was given to me by an actress who was on the national tour of Rent when I was first starting out. When I booked my first job she gave it to me and said, “Carry it with you until you know you’ve done something you really want to do and then pass it on to someone who’d just starting out doing something they love to do.” So I carried it with me for a couple of years and recently I gave it to a friend who’s starting out.

Q. Do you think there’s a Bollywood musical in your future?

A: I don’t think so. I enjoy watching Bollywood films, but I like to do more American films, sort of more in line with what I’ve been doing. I’m always up for Bollywood films but I don’t think the song and dance thing is up my alley.

Q. You changed your name when you joined the movies. Is there a difference between Kal Penn and Kalpen Modi?

A: I don’t think there is a difference. It was sort of arbitrary, putting a name change on the resume. I haven’t changed my name in real life, I have no desire to. But like a whole lot of actors like Whoopi Goldberg and Winona Ryder, you just pick a catchy name and hope it works. 

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