Daily Arts Writer Sravya Chirumamilla caught up with Kal Penn and Dr. Sanjay Gupta at the South Asian Awareness Network conference held last weekend. While Penn was made famous by his role as Taj Mahal Badalandabad, the oral-sex crazed exchange student in “National Lampoon’s Van Wilder,” Gupta, a Michigan alum, is the chief medical correspondent for CNN and a White House fellow.
The Michigan Daily: What kinds of stereotypes have you faced in your field?
Kal Penn: Stereotypes? What stereotypes? (laughs)
Everything from going to an audition and having people expect that you do not speak English or being surprised when you do speak English and telling you that you speak good English.
I have been to auditions where a casting director asked me ‘Where is your turban? We thought you would show up wearing a turban. Can you go home and put on a bed sheet?’
Within the community the stereotypes are equally prevalent. There are many assumptions that if you are not going to be a doctor, engineer or going into business, you are doing something wrong. These jobs that filled the post 65 labor need are often equated as being South Asian. Actors then have no support network from within and outside of the community and are therefore left in limbo.
TMD: How have you surpassed South Asian stereotypes?
KP: I do not think that there is a start and finish. It is a continuing struggle and there are varying degrees to dealing with it. The best way to change these stereotypes is by getting into the profession and changing from inside. As an actor, I have had to accept roles that I have opposed personally, however I need them professionally in order to build my resume.
Other actors not of color have access to larger and ethnic neutral roles. I took these roles in order to open others doors. I do not think we will ever get past all the stereotypes in our generation, but the only way to get past some is to actively change things from the inside.
TMD: What do you think about the new breed of South Asian influences in American media?
KP: I would hope that it is not a fad and a more of a merging of the two cultures, especially with rap music sampling Hindi songs. Things like yoga, when not fully understood, are exoticised. Indian things have been overly commercialized, like chai tea from Starbucks and yoga mats. What is a yoga mat? Nobody in India uses a yoga mat. What the hell is that?
TMD: How should students actively combat these stereotypes?
KP: The easiest way for people to be heard is if they write a letter or pick up the phone. If you are offended or even if you see a South Asian depicted in a positive role, let the advertisers or networks know how you feel.
The Michigan Daily: Why did you choose to become a White House fellow?
Sanjay Gupta: What really struck me was when I was able to really affect things in policy, in areas such as Sub-Saharan Africa, India and other areas of the world. Speech writing, radio and television can influence a lot of change. While doctors impact people one at a time, people in the media affect millions of people.
But then again, maybe it is not a good idea for others to do exactly what I have done.
Everyone I have met has had a passion that they do not always have an outlet for. Everyone just needs to spend time to figure out his or her passions. I do not think everyone needs to influence change, but I do think people need to be passionate about things.
TMD: What is one of your most memorable experiences?
SG: I was at CNN on September 11 and I saw a newsroom that works like clockwork turn into utter pandemonium.
Since all the jets had been grounded, they snuck me onto the AOL Time Warner [CNN’s parent company] plane and got me to New York City to be on the air the next day.
I was so used to seeing those two buildings, the two front teeth of the nation. It was as if they had been knocked out.
I was in a unique position as one of the only people of my ethnicity that was on the air. I had to be the best journalist at this time. I thought it was important for the nation to see someone of my skin color and ethnicity on the air.
People had to see that while I am Indian, I am also credible. They had to see that there were people of my ethnicity standing behind the country and condemning these events.
TMD: How would you cure the apathy that most students face?
SG: That is a double-edged sword. There are so many choices that it almost becomes overwhelming and then schoolwork suffer. Find something that you are passionate about and get good at it.
Be good at something and make it a part of your life. Do not get too bogged down by becoming a joiner. Challenge the hierarchy.