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.