Mindy Kaling B'Day: Exploring the Evolving Optics of South-Asian Representation
Mindy Kaling has often been considered a "pioneer" when it comes to South-Asian representation in Hollywood.
In October 2011, Mindy Kaling wrote a piece in The New Yorker titled ‘Flick Chicks’ wherein she talked about the stereotypical representation of women in romcoms or in her words: “in the romantic-comedy world there are many specimens of women who—like Vulcans or Mothra—do not exist in real life”.
In that vein, when it comes to tackling stereotypes, Mindy Kaling (born 24 June 1979) has often been in the spotlight when it came to South-Asian representation.
From her memorable Kelly Kapoor in the popular sitcom The Office to being one of the hosts at the ‘South Asian Excellence’ event at the 75th Academy Awards, Mindy Kaling become one of the poster children for Indian representation in Hollywood,
There were those before her, including Kal Penn, (the criminally underrated Bend it Like Beckham star) Parminder Nagra, and Noureen Dewulf, and they pretty much opened the doors for South-Asians in an industry that was dominated by white actors and characters.
From ‘The Office’ to ‘The Mindy Project’
But Kaling’s contribution to the same is no small matter. There’s, of course, the simple fact that the romantic angles and overall plot in The Office benefited a lot from Kaling’s work in the writers’ room. Then there is the fact that with her show The Mindy Project, she created a South-Asian character who wasn’t just flawed but also a bankable protagonist– a rarity…still.
To add to that, Kaling was also one of those who managed to bring the idea of the ‘sexy South Asian’ to the mainstream. It was extremely refreshing to watch Devi Vishwakumar in Never Have I Ever embrace her sexuality and who can forget her cousin Kamala Nandiwadal who makes people crash their bikes (while excelling at her PhD at Caltech).
And it only gets better— Simone Ashley and Charithra Chandran had the Internet swooning when they joined the cast of Bridgerton as the Sharma sisters; Rahul Kohli in his inimitable roles in Midnight Mass and Haunting of Bly Manor; and who can ignore the massive fanbase (and fancams) Dev Patel has.
While Kaling has received her share of, sometimes fair, criticism, one can’t imagine success came easy in an industry dominated by men and cis het white people. In her book, ‘Is Everyone Hanging Out With Me? (And Other Concerns)’ Kaling talks about a pilot project she worked on with her best friend Brenda about their lives in Brooklyn.
But, she writes, after it passed all the executive loopholes, she didn’t recognise the project anymore:
“By the time we shot the script, Mindy & Brenda bore no resemblance to us, figuratively or literally. I believe in the shooting draft they were both fashion bloggers who worked at a cupcake bakery and were constantly referring to their iPods.”Mindy Kaling
Mindy Kaling Returns to Our Screens Over and Over Again
Kaling’s recent projects include the successful Netflix show Never Have I Ever which was a leap ahead in South-Asian stories with an Indian protagonist played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (and Richa Moorjani and Poorna Jagannathan are cast members). Kaling, who was born to a Tamil father and Bengali mother, breaks many stereotypes with her show which, believe it or not, is still very necessary.
Not to be forgotten, for the longest time, the most popular “Indian” character on international cable was Apu Nahasapeemapetilon who operated the Kwik-E-Mart in The Simpsons.
His character was extremely racially stereotypical and was voiced by Hank Azaria, a white man, who dropped the mantle…in 2020.
Kaling’s coming-of-age show isn’t perfect– it has garnered criticism for catering to ‘white sensibilities’, portraying a superficial idea of the Indian identity, ableism, casteism, and more. I do not possess the right to tell any of these critics that they’re wrong.
South-Asian representation has advanced at a steady pace in the past decade with the Oscars having a record number of South-Asian films showcased. Bollywood actor Priyanka Chopra has gained celebrity status in Hollywood and beyond and Deepika Padukone was sitting at the prestigious Cannes jury this year, 2022.
Riz Ahmed was on stage at the Oscars winning an award for his film The Long Goodbye– his short film about an immigrant family living in modern-day Britain. So, yes, while Mindy Kaling was a “pioneer” in South-Asian representation, her older projects might not hold a candle to the newer milestones.
“And I think as women, you know, if you are considered a pioneer in these things, you can get really distracted by these other things — you know, people's demands of you reflecting on your otherness.”Mindy Kaling to NPR
That doesn’t mean that Kaling is one to be written off; afterall she is the creator of the unapologetically honest The Sex Lives of College Girls. The show stars Amrit Kaur as Bela, an Indian-American from New Jersey, who is living her best college life by her own standards.
Not only that, the show deals with themes of racial discrimination, parent-child relationships, sexual abuse, homophobia, sexuality, elitism, and much more. In the latest news, Kaling is tackling the criticism surrounding her decision to make the popular Scooby-Doo character Velma South-Asian.
‘I Don’t Care’: Mindy Kaling
Kaling also voices the character in the spinoff Velma and to her critics, she said, “Hopefully you noticed my Velma is South Asian. If people freak out about that, I don’t care.”
She added, “Nobody ever complained about a talking dog solving mysteries, So I don’t think they’ll be upset over a brown Velma.” The truth is, they will be. Racism isn’t new and it isn’t going anywhere and people will continue being “upset” over fictional characters’ race too.
At the end of the day, what matters is that Mindy Kaling and those who came before her and after her, have plastered the South-Asian identity on the map and it’s here to stay.
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