Harold And Kumar star Kal Penn is still recognised on streets for the cult comedy

Kal Penn did not expect the Harold And Kumar films to make him a pop-culture figure in unexpected places

American actor Kal Penn is constantly surprised by how his breakthrough movie, the raunchy comedy Harold And Kumar Go To White Castle (2004), and its equally risque sequels have made him a pop-culture figure in the most unexpected places, including Germany, Australia and Singapore. 

"People have watched it here," says the 37-year-old, sounding surprised.

He was in Singapore to attend the premiere on Thursday of the docudrama, Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain, a fictionalised reconstruction of the events leading up to the 1984 gas leak in the Union Carbide pesticide plant that killed more than 3,000 and caused the deaths of another 15,000 in the following months.

The film is now screening at Golden Village Plaza. 

After his arrival in Singapore on Wednesday, his handlers had talked about how people on the street would greet him with a shout of "Kumar".

 "I guess they want to say something nice but they don't know what to say," he says with a laugh. 

"All the Harold And Kumar movies had a very low budget and then suddenly people halfway around the world have seen it. That's cool," he says, on his first visit to Singapore. 

Recently, the New York-based actor, whose real name is Kalpen Suresh Modi, has been seen in television shows such as sitcom How I Met Your Mother and medical drama House, in which he appeared as Dr Lawrence Kutner in 37 episodes. 

He also worked for the Obama administration for short spells in recent years, holding appointments such as director of public engagement and co-chair for the re-election campaign in 2012. 

Being part of the fictionalised retelling of the Bhopal disaster, the worst industrial accident, allowed him to come to grips with an event that he had vaguely known about when he was a child and had read about in college, he says. 

The film opened last year in the United States and India and, in both countries, he found many younger people who had never heard of the event or who were only barely aware of it.

As the film shows, the aftermath is still being felt today - many feel that justice has yet to be served fully and the site of the now-abandoned factory has yet to be cleaned up and made safe. 

The lack of a clear resolution, even 30 years after the disaster, is one reason why no one has tried to make a movie about it, which helps explain the lack of awareness about the incident.  

"There have been a lot of books and documentaries, but never a fictional adaptation, which really gets in the people's imaginations.

More people watch TV and movies than read," Penn says.

In the film, he plays Motwani, a gossip columnist and publisher of a muck-raking tabloid.

His character, based on a real person, has a somewhat comical, larger-than-life personality. India-born, United Kingdom-based director Ravi Kumar approached Penn for the part because he knew the actor could deliver the humour.

But the actor says he took the part because he saw Motwani as a tragic figure.

"He starts out really over the top but, by the end, nobody believes him when he tries to warn people of the coming disaster because he's printed so many meaningless headlines."

johnlui@sph.com.sg

Bhopal: A Prayer For Rain is showing at Golden Village Plaza.