How Mindy Kaling became a force to reckon with in an entertainment industry dominated by white men
Mindy Kaling’s a bit of a powerhouse in Hollywood today and not just for Indian-origin-Americans, but also for women in general.
“Hey gods, its Devi Vishwakumar, your favourite Hindu girl in the San Fernando Valley,” prays a young desi American girl in the teaser for Never Have I Ever (premiering Netflix on 27 April). In the trailer, she dreams about having sex with the hottest guy in school, and rebranding from nerd to what someone calls an ‘Indian Kardashian’. She reeks of attitude when she tells someone she’s going to get railed, and she calls high school a d*ck.
None of this is ‘not relatable’ because the loveable teen nerd is a genre by itself. Kevin from The Wonder Years spawned countless American television shows on teenage misfits, most from the point of view of white kids with a few exceptions like Everybody Hates Chris. Adolescence from the POV of a desi kid, however, has so far been reserved for the sidekicks and the outliers, and that’s what makes the premise of this show so unique. It comes as no surprise that the show comes from the fertile imagination of Mindy Kaling, inspired by her own childhood growing up in suburban America.
Mindy Kaling’s a bit of a powerhouse in Hollywood today and not just for Indian-origin-Americans, but also for women in general. Her beginnings weren’t easy though. It’s not like she burst on to mainstream television with a big splash and even now, many would say her best is yet to come. When she landed a gig on The Office in 2004, it was as part of the writing staff and a minor diversity role on the show. The transformation of her character, Kelly Rajnigandha Kapoor, over eight seasons of the show into the self-absorbed, gossipy ditz that everyone remembers today as an essential member of the cast, was gradual and reflects in a way her personal growth through the industry.
As the only woman and person of colour in the writer’s room of The Office, Mindy’s used to being the outlier, the unknown quantity, the misfit. Six months back, she spoke about the TV Academy trying to drop her from the show’s list of producers and having to get validation from her male colleagues to prove she had actually contributed. As a WOC (woman of colour), one might think it would be easy to play the victim card and use it to get ahead but she’s only started opening up about her early struggles now, when she’s already up there at the top.
A lot of things might now be different since Mindy’s days at The Office, but the seeds of change are usually sowed by a few whose journeys pave a path for those that come after them. In 2012, when Mindy dared to dream with a romantic sitcom featuring a female, brown character in the lead, she was rejected by NBC who she was under contract with at the time. Fox picked up The Mindy Project a few weeks later with a few caveats on beefing up the male protagonist’s character, both physically and intellectually to make it more palatable for television audiences. That all of this was soon forgotten is a different story, with critics and viewers praising the authenticity and freshness of the show and its lead character. There were new rules being written here and while The Mindy Project saw a middling three-season run on Fox, Hulu jumped at the opportunity to renew it for a further three seasons. Content was changing and the new crop of executives at these new-age studios was defenestrating age-old formulas. The Mindy Project might not be remembered as super-stellar content but will go down in television history as one of the forerunners for the slew of content we see today centred on protagonists of colour.
Through out this period, Mindy played the lead, wrote dozens of episodes and served as executive producer on her show. She also wrote a bunch of essays, captured in her bestselling books that speak about her experiences growing up as a first generation American desi and her life as a television writer and actor. Her Hollywood presence began to grow with roles in films like Inside Out and The Five Year Engagement, culminating in much larger projects like A Wrinkle in Time and Ocean’s 8.
Mindy is now a dozen years into the industry and a force to reckon with. Easily the most recognisable Indian-American in television, she is now being seen as a role model by countless WOCs trying to break into an industry that’s been dominated by white males for over half a century.
And while role models very often flatter to deceive, Mindy’s worn her crown in her trademark self-deprecating manner and has grown from strength to strength. The last four years have seen projects like Champions on NBC, Late Night (co-starring Emma Thompson) that was bought by Amazon, Four Weddings and a Funeral reimagined as a mini-series for Hulu and the Netflix commissioned project, Never Have I Ever.
In every one of these, she’s busted the cliché of the leading lady being skinny and white. Mindy’s healthy body image is out there for all to see in her social media interactions and press interviews — from telling a leading women’s magazine that she identifies as ‘cute and chubby’ to recommending products that go with her skin tone. What’s ironic and not missed by her countless fans is the fact that she probably would never have made it in India where people are obsessed with fair skin. But there are always life lessons to be learnt when looking at Mindy’s life. She’s been a proud, single mother for the past couple of years and is always quick to point out that women can raise children and have successful careers at the same time.
What’s truly amazing is that Mindy’s achieved all of this by just being honest and injecting a part of herself into everything she creates or does. When she told a leading magazine that The Mindy Project was inspired in parts by Pride and Prejudice, South Park, Bridget Jones’s Diary and her mother, she was just being Mindy. It’s this authenticity and uncanny ability to laugh at herself that we’re hoping to see when Never Have I Ever drops later this month. It’s no secret that a lot of the show is based on her own experiences growing up in Cambridge, Massachusetts as a nerdy teenager just dying to have hot guys notice her. There are many us who’d give an arm and a leg to see her attend a high school reunion — at 40, she’s set the bar so high, we can’t help but stan.
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