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Saturday, Aug 24, 2019

This week’s newsmaker: The hysterical, unstoppable Mindy Kaling

The actor-director-comedian is busier than ever, and is using each new project to defy more stereotypes and smash at new glass ceilings.

hollywood Updated: Jul 12, 2019 17:46 IST
Vanessa Viegas
Vanessa Viegas
Hindustan Times
Right now, Kaling’s making waves for a bunch of things, from bikini posts that tell everyone who wants to wear one to just put one on, to a semi-autobiographical Netflix series, a web adaptation of  Four Weddings and a Funeral , and a new film called Late Night.
Right now, Kaling’s making waves for a bunch of things, from bikini posts that tell everyone who wants to wear one to just put one on, to a semi-autobiographical Netflix series, a web adaptation of Four Weddings and a Funeral , and a new film called Late Night. (Shutterstock)

Mindy Kaling is an unlikely celebrity. She was reminded of this all the time, in early interviews that routinely asked how her immigrant Indian parents had permitted her career choices; that routinely told her how ‘brave’ she was to dress as she did.

People clearly didn’t understand why she wasn’t playing the good-hearted bespectacled best friend of the beautiful White woman, as rom-com and sitcom conventions dictated. Instead, she shot onto the scene with a character that was literally and figuratively hysterical (the popculture-obsessed, shrieking drama queen Kelly Kapoor on the US version of The Office; 2005 – 2011); went on to star in a show that had all the men angling for her (The Mindy Project; 2012 – 2017).

And in that time, the world changed and caught up with her. Along with acting, she’d been writing, producing and directing.

In the years when she was carving a path for herself, America had its first Black President, women and people of colour were finally saving the world in superhero franchises and summer blockbusters were being peopled entirely by crazy, rich Asians. Body positivity became a trending hashtag. Influencers began to come in all sizes.

So it’s easy to forget that in the early 2000s, there was no precedent for Mindy’s success. When she started out as an intern on The Conan O’Brien show at 19, writers’ rooms were dominated and run by White men. People of colour existed to fill stereotypical roles for as little screen time as possible. There was Whitney Houston and a young Beyoncé; Padma Lakshmi and Tyra Banks, but they all looked like or were supermodels.

So what made Kaling think she could make it? As she writes in her book, Why Not Me?, ‘‘It’s not that I think I’m so great. I just don’t hate myself… I don’t let everything traumatize me. The scary thing I have noticed is that some people really feel uncomfortable around women who don’t hate themselves. So that’s why you need to be a little bit brave.’

Kaling’s success has come from that mix of disarming honesty and ‘you-can-do-it-too’ encouragement, backed of course by a powerhouse of talent and ambition. 

Right now, Kaling’s making waves for a typically assorted bunch of things — bikini photos in which she encourages anyone who want to to just put one on! In the new film she wrote, called Late Night, she stars alongside Emma Thompson and plays a diversity hire on a TV show. She’s adapting the classic rom-com Four Weddings and a Funeral for Hulu, with a cast full of people of colour. She’s writing the screenplay for an Indian wedding comedy for Universal Studios that will star Priyanka Chopra. And last month Netflix announced a deal with Kaling for a comedy series loosely based on her teenage years as an immigrant trying to fit in.

Vera Mindy Chokalingam was born to a Tamil architect and a Bengali ob-gyn, in the year they migrated from Nigeria to Cambridge, Massachusetts. They named her after Mork & Mindy, one of the few American shows broadcast on Nigerian television at the time.

She’s said she was born with the impulse that someone who looked like her could play the lead, and not be some long-suffering stereotype or some chubby, nerdy, needy best friend.

She knew she wanted to be a comedy writer at the age of 6, and wrote funny plays in her mother’s clinic, after school. Anything her mother laughed at was treasured, and Mindy decided she wanted more of this power.

She graduated from Darthmouth College with a degree in playwriting and got her big break when Greg Daniels, who was making the US adaptation of The Office, saw her in a small, off-Broadway play.


Her self-deprecating humor is equal parts hilarious critique and thumping self-praise. She’ll tell you she shaves her legs using just a bar of soap, but what Mindy considers private is not up for likes or comments. She’s refused to name the father of her child or discuss her relationship with her estranged brother. She’s the hero of the story, but she doesn’t lose herself in it.

Really, she’s just the girl (you wish lived) next door, with the attitude of a tall, blond, white male; someone who dared early on to speak, write and enact truths most of us would only whisper.

First Published: Jul 12, 2019 17:46 IST

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