Why Kal Penn’s Engagement With Politics Makes Him Uniquely Experienced

Arushi Sinha - 61 weeks ago

Netflix has decided not to renew Designated Survivor - a Washington DC based political drama starring Kiefer Sutherland as President of the USA. After rounds of complex deal making with ABC Networks, which had decided to pull the show off after two seasons, the streaming giant acquired it for a third, and continues to show it across the world. The decision to not renew, as stated by Netflix, is based on cost versus viewership consideration.

(Kal Penn in a still from Designated Survivor)

Speaking to TV Insider during the launch of this show, Penn has mentioned that crucial details and specifics of what White House badges look like, the sitting arrangement during meetings with POTUS in the Oval Office, and crucial periods in a presidency like ‘March Madness’. His experience of grinding his nose at a White House job earned him key access with the First Family, the Obamas and huge respect amongst his peers in showbiz. In fact, Kiefer Sutherland, the force behind Designated Survivor got Penn on board, having worked with him during 24, the super successful thriller series, and convinced that the actor’s exposure to inner workings and protocol of the White House made him an asset. 

A graduate of UCLA, Penn’s parents are first generation émigrés to the United States of America. His lived experience of being immigrants to a new world, and a natural born sense of humor brings popularity amongst young audiences, especially those with South Asian and Hispanic origins. Penn found his footing with lighthearted comedies like the Harold and Kumar movies and How I Met My Mother, but graduated to a credible performance with Mira Nair’s Namesake, where he plays Nikhil (Gogol), son of the film’s protagonists Ashoke and Ashima. His capacity to tackle roles that requires emotional complexity emerged with this performance. Penn nearly turned down the role of a teenage terrorist in 24, Kiefer Sutherland’s record-breaking show on ethical grounds. He found the part, of Ahmed Amar, a form of racial profiling, repulsive and clichéd. As so often happens, a coveted part in a highly popular and visible network show won over, as he got to play a typical terrorist dabbling with bombs and taking families hostage. 

(Tabu, Kal Penn, and Zuleikha Robinson in a still from The Namesake)

Penn’s engagement with politics began with the Obama campaign. He actively advocated for the President, and upon election, apart from his role in the Office of Public Engagement, also became a member of the National Arts Policy Committee. Penn resigned from this body along with fellow artistes after Donald Trump’s rally Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, citing racist provocation. Till 2017, Penn and his fellow members of this committee engaged deeply with minority communities in the USA with a progressive mindset. 

Since then, the actor has spoken about the influence of Gandhian thinking and learning as taught to him by his parents, in his focus on quasi- political and humanitarian activities. Penn recently hosted ‘The Giant Beast That is the Global Economy’ on Amazon Prime Video, a detailed, extensive analysis in documentary format of concerns and driving factors of world trade, economic exchange and impact on people. Penn does a fine job, hosting highly complex subjects of humongous scale with a touch of humor and goofiness that endears him to the viewer and makes the cut and dried world of economics easy to consume. 

(Kal Penn in a still from This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy)

Penn’s engagement with the question of identity and politics continues till date. With his work on TV and films, he focuses on this question with a user-friendly manner. He has co-written Sunnyside, a comedy that he toplines as star. His role is that of man living in New York that helps immigrants find their footing in the USA. The show has earned a lukewarm response on NBC, but Penn continues to diversify his artistic engagement. Balancing work commitments, he has been studying for a degree in security studies for some time, to better understand geopolitics and implications of international trade for some time. He teaches a course on Indian- Americans in the media at a Philadelphia University, and is reportedly working on another show for NBC. Penn responded to a racist comment on his Instagram account by crowd-funding a fundraiser for Syrian refugees that raises over $517,646 in less than 24 hours. This occurred during President Trump’s Executive Order 13769 which banned immigration to the United States from Syria, Yemen, Sudan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, and Somalia regardless of visa status.

(John Cho and Kal Penn in Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay)

Penn continues to stand for equal and fair treatment of immigrants, and other humanitarian causes proudly. His unique place as an artiste of immigrant origin straddling liberal political beliefs enhances his prestige and popularity, even as his ability to pivot to humor keeps the day job (acting) going. In future, it will be interesting to see what does this politically experienced actor create for film and TV.


Kal Penn / The Namesake / Harold and Kumar / This Giant Beast That is the Global Economy / Designated Survivor / 24/ Kiefer Sutherland / Barack Obama / White House

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of The Film Hashery.

Sign up to get access to the stories behind films and conversations on cinema worldwide.