When it was first learned that Kal Penn had signed up to produce and star in Toronto Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia in a movie, the pair weren’t even acquainted.

And they haven’t yet, thanks to COVID-19.

The pair were due to sit on Bhatia’s court seats together on Dec. 10 when the Raptors faced the New York Knicks from Penn’s hometown at Scotiabank Arena. But after Bhatia attended Masai Ujiri’s African Giants gala event on Sunday, the team president announced that he had tested positive for the virus. Bhatia immediately followed Toronto Public Health protocol by isolating himself, costing him the opportunity to meet the actor who will play him.

In addition to the lost connection, it forced the Raptor superfan to miss his first home game since 1995. That harrowing detail adds another chapter to Bhatia’s story, recently covered in a CBC documentary, which will now also be featured in a feature film. script starring Penn. . But it’s not Bhatia’s devotion to basketball that drew Penn to his story.

It was the resilience and determination Bhatia displayed after emigrating to Canada in 1984, fleeing violence in India, that impressed the actor.

Trained as a mechanical engineer, Bhatia was unable to find work in his new home. After working a variety of odd jobs, he finally landed a job as a car salesman. His unwavering drive was clear early on, setting sales records as soon as he entered. He was promoted to manager of the dealership, but despite his success, most of the sales team resigned instead of working for him. Some car buyers were also not sold on the seller.

“Customers didn’t want me to serve them,” Bhatia told the Toronto Star. “They said they wanted to be served by a ‘normal’ vendor, no turban. They called me by many names like ‘towel head’, ‘diaper head’ and ‘Paki’.

“That day was the lowest of my life, but it was also the most motivating. I made a commitment to myself that if I’m going to survive in this country, I’m going to be better than good. And I did it. I sold 127 cars in 90 days. It was a record then, and it is a record now. “

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Penn told the Toronto Star that the discrimination Bhatia faced when he first arrived in Canada is something he spoke to.

“His story is one of overcoming adversity and triumph in the most unifying way … Nav deals with discrimination in a way that my generation does not. We are used to dealing with discrimination with much more anger. I think a lot of people from my generation will look to our uncles and aunts … people from Nav’s generation who have sacrificed so much for us. We look at their stories and ask, ‘Why aren’t you angry? I’m so angry.'”

He says the lesson to be learned from Bhatia is not to let anger and other negative emotions impede personal progress.

“One of the things that really drew me to this project was that this story epitomizes love and unity. That’s a beautiful thing anywhere, but especially in a place like Toronto, a city that is already known for embodying something like this through a sport that people around the world love. “

Penn and Bhatia’s first face-to-face meeting may be on hold, but that hasn’t dampened Bhatia’s excitement over who will play him.

“I have a superstar who represents me. Trust me, I get goose bumps, ”Bhatia said. “I am trying not to cry. This is not something that just happens. When I talk to my wife and daughter, we are crying about it. God is making this happen. “

Penn says this is a very special movie for him. As a result of that, you want to make sure that the story is told in the right way. That is only through the voice of its protagonist.

“The person who finally decides what it contains is Nav. It is not a story about anyone else. I think I first heard about Nav’s story when I was filming ‘Designated Survivor’ here in Toronto. That was the first real time I spent in the city, ”Penn said. “There are not many people who look like us and who are so well known for something in the world of sports.”

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Penn said he has watched the CBC documentary “Superfan: The Nav Bhatia Story” four times while continuing to research the role. He believes there is a spirit in the untitled project that he compared to his experience in “Harold and Kumar,” also filmed in Toronto.

“Everybody says (‘Harold and Kumar’) is the first Asian-American comedy from a studio. And that is true. It’s a movie about weed and hamburgers, but what it’s really about is a friendship. That movie worked well because people didn’t care what the characters looked like and they identified with it. “

For his part, Nav said Penn was the only man for the job. He thinks he and Penn look alike.

“He looks like my little brother or my oldest son. Look at your eyebrows and your nose and your lips. I think once you have a beard, people won’t be able to tell the difference. “

He’s especially impressed that Penn worked alongside one of his inspirations. In 2009, Penn interrupted his acting career for two years to fill a position in the White House Office of Public Engagement under the Obama administration.

“He is a very good actor and he worked for my heroes. He worked for the Obamas. I am going to put a condition in the contract, that he will help me to meet Michelle Obama ”.

There is no set date for the film’s release. Penn said his goal is to tell the story correctly.

“I want to be careful about that … We want to make sure we get it right.”

“The Nav story is worthy of that. The city of Toronto is worth that. “

Murtz Jaffer is a freelance writer living in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter at @murtzjaffer.


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