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Meet Gogul Ganguli
At the heart of The Namesake's story is the character of Gogol – a young American born to Bengali parents and burdened with the name of a Russian author. Gogol's character must search for an identity to hold onto inside all this cultural confusion. On the page, Gogol is rebellious, funny, smart and definitely American in his tastes and outlook, so the filmmakers set out on a search for an American actor of Indian descent who could pull off that mixture on screen. They found their match in Kal Penn, a New Jersey native who first came to the fore in such comedies as VAN WILDER and HAROLD & KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE, and most recently starred with Ashton Kutcher in A LOT LIKE LOVE and in SUPERMAN RETURNS.

Coincidentally, Penn had originally been inspired to become an actor after seeing Mira Nair's MISSISSIPPI MASALA as a young kid, which allowed him for the first time to believe it was possible for a boy with an Indian face to grow up to star in movies.

Although he had yet to tackle a major leading role as intense or dramatic as Gogol, the filmmakers were immediately won over by Kal. Recalls Lydia Pilcher: "Mira had initially considered some actors out of Bombay but as we progressed in the casting process, it became clear that finding an American to play Gogol was of paramount importance. Kal became the perfect person because he not only is an amazing actor, but he also understood the character in the most deeply felt way. It seemed like destiny to find him.”

Nair comments: "Kal just moved me, frankly. He was so honest and so cute and he was able to capture Gogol's angst, Gogol's awkwardness and also Gogol's distinctive coming of age. It's a role very close to Kal's heart because he also sees it as being about his family and where he comes from. There was a genuine sense right from the start that he owned the role and he took it very, very seriously.”

Kal faced a particularly intricate journey as Gogol – moving from a teen playing air guitar in his bedroom to a young adult experiencing the vicissitudes of love, loss and marriage. He had read the novel even before he found out about the film and had a very emotional reaction to it. "It provoked a lot of different responses from me, from laughter to tears,” he says. "I immediately knew it was something very unique.”

When he found he might have the opportunity to play Gogol, the lure was irresistible. "I saw Gogol as my Holden Caulfield,” Kal explains. "I felt like this was my one shot at the kind of part that would really push me as an actor. And although he's quite different from me in a lot of ways, Gogol's internal struggles to find his true identity spoke to me, very deeply and very immediately.”

Kal was especially drawn to the idea of adding a whole new layer to the classic American coming-of-age story – this time as seen through the eyes of a first-generation immigrant. "I consider myself to be very American but I also think stories of immigrants really define the American experience,” he says. "One of the things I really like about this story is that it dispels the myth that being a young American looks a particular way or has a particular tradition. I think it brings us back to the core idea of the American experience – which are all these beautiful shared stories of people coming here from all around the world full of hope and promise.”

To keep the character fresh, Kal decided not to read even a single word of Nikolai Gogol's writing so that he would be just like Gogol Ganguli – cut off from that part of his story. "I was tempted but I waited patiently until the very end of production to crack open Nikolai Gogol's stories,” he notes.

As Gogol grows up, Kal also faced several physical transformations for the film – the most spectacular being the scene where he shaves his head to express both Gogol's grief and his<

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