Fuse is celebrating Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month by looking at a variety of rising forces who are creating Future Asian and Pacific History before our eyes. Today we celebrate Mindy Kaling, who didn't even bother breaking the mold--she just ignored it.
“I often forget that being an Indian-American woman who’s not sort of pencil thin is very new to broadcast television,” she told NPR in 2014. But that doesn't take the pressure off: That same year, when she was asked on a SXSW panel why her show only had one female doctor and one doctor of color on The Mindy Project¸ she responded with, “I’m a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, OK?”
Despite her reaction, Kaling—born Vera Mindy Chokalingham to Hindu parents from India—understands the impact she’s having on TV viewers, and the burden that places on her.
““There’s not any Indian female comedy leads in anything. And that’s when I get really jealous of the Danny McBrides and the Steve Carells, because when they play a character, you’re not like, ‘What are you saying about white men with this portrayal of Michael Scott?’ They just get to play Michael Scott. And so when I play this character, and I want to play like a fun character who makes, like big flaws and things like that, I sometimes think that I’m speaking for all Indian-American women. And so I’m kind of like, ‘Dammit, why wasn’t this 75 years in the future?’ when you’re like, ‘Enough Indian-American women! We’re sick of it! Too many!'"”
When Kaling was starting her career, she realized that roles for women like her were pretty much nonexistent, so she simply created her own. She started with “Matt and Ben,” a play she wrote and co-starred in with her friend Brenda Withers about Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. (Kaling was Ben.)
“"Write your own part. It is the only way I’ve gotten anywhere. It is much harder work, but sometimes you have to take destiny into your own hands. It forces you to think about what your strengths really are, and once you find them, you can showcase them, and no one can stop you.””
When "Matt and Ben" moved from off-Broadway to L.A., it got her noticed by The Office creator Gregg Daniels, who read a spec script by Kaling and then hired her as a writer-performer for the show, making her the only woman on a writing staff of eight. She made her on-screen debut as Kelly Kapoor in the second episode, “Diversity Day,” and her writing debut in episode five, “Hot Girl,” directed by Amy Heckerling and guest starring Amy Adams as a woman selling purses.
She was the most prolific writer on The Office, directed two episodes, rose through the ranks as a producer, and then went on to create her own show, The Mindy Project. The show spent three seasons on Fox, then moved to Hulu, where it will start its final season in September. Her character on the show, Mindy Lahiri--named after author Jhumpa Lahiri--is an ob/gyn who’s both “delusionally confident" and "unapologetically selfish."
Dr. Mindy Lahiri is the queen of physical mishaps (sliding off silk sheets, painfully bumping into cacti, riding a bicycle into a swimming pool), a champion of women’s health, a devoted fashionista, a single mom, a chronically bad dater, frequently shallow, and as complex and multifaceted as actual human beings are in real life … just a lot more hilarious. On The Mindy Project, Kaling is a writer, producer, showrunner, and star, a role that, let’s face it, tends to be owned by a very specific demographic that Kaling is definitely not a part of.
In her first book, Why Not Me? she explains why it matters who's asking when people want to know where her confidence comes from:
“"When an adult white man asks me 'Where do you get your confidence?' the tacit assumption behind it is: 'Because you don't look like a person who should have any confidence. You're not white, you're not a man, and you're not thin or conventionally attractive. How were you able to overlook these obvious shortcomings to feel confident?'"”
She has reasons for that confidence--she's talented as hell and she works her ass off. Kaling's newest projects include optioning former Obama staffer Alyssa Mastromonaco's memoir for a TV series, and scoring a series order from NBC for Champions, a show she's doing with Mindy Project co-producer Charlie Grandy. And her movie career—which included a fun appearance as Disgust in Inside Out—is about to shift into high gear: Ocean’s Eight, co-starring Sandra Bullock, Anne Hathaway, Sarah Paulson and Rihanna, is due in June of 2018, and Ava DuVernay's A Wrinkle in Time (in which she plays Mrs. Who) premieres next March.
Time magazine named her one of the most influential people of 2012, and two years later, she was on Glamour's Women of the Year list. In addition to her work in film & TV, she's also written two books, and is working on a third, a collaboration with her pal B.J. Novak. She also has over nine million Twitter followers, and a level-headed view of her own career trajectory.
“"It’d be great to be so famous that if I murder someone, I will never, ever, ever serve any jail time, even if it’s totally obvious to everyone that I did it."”