It is very difficult to say anything about Mindy Kaling that she hasn't said herself. Another feather in the cap of this mostly-beloved Indian-American actor-creator is the National Medal of Arts awarded by the President of the United States. She now stands in the league of painter Georgia OKeefe, singers Bob Dylan, Ella Fitzgerald and Aretha Franklin, writers Saul Bellow, John Updike, Ray Bradbury, musicians Dave Brubeck and Yo-Yo Ma, playwright Edward Albee, poets Maya Angelou and Gwendolyn Brooks, and actors Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Morgan Freeman, and Al Pacino.
She's only the second Indian-American woman to have received this honour, the first being writer Jhumpa Lahiri.
What is it like to be Mindy Kaling at this moment?
What is it like to watch Mindy Kaling at this moment?
Being Mindy Kaling in Hollywood
Mindy Kaling told Melena Ryzik of The New York Times in 2016 what it was really like to work in Hollywood.
“My role is not just artist. It’s also activist because of the way I look. On so many shows and movies, race was a gesture, and in mine it’s the premise. I can’t ignore that what a lot of people see is an Indian woman who doesn’t look like a Bollywood star. It piques their interest, and they’re not bad for wanting me to tell stories about it, and I’m not wrong for not wanting to. I want to fill my desire to write vibrant, flawed characters, but then also be a role model to young people. It’s stuff that I think about all the time. Some people don’t have to think about this at all."
Yes, the familiarity of not being the familiar one.
Becoming Mindy Kaling
Hollywood creators—and most of the Western mass media—have been projecting certain beauty ideals and come routinely under fire for it. Add to this the sticky subject of race and there is an even bigger minefield for coloured women to negotiate. So, how did Mindy Kaling become a force to reckon with?
Part answer lies in Kaling's social location in the American society. Born to immigrant parents who were upper-caste and had respectable professional careers—father an architect and mother an obstetrician gynaecologist—Kaling's socio-economic status has aided her fight. She attended a private school in Cambridge called Buckingham Browne & Nichols before joining the elite Dartmouth College. Her education credentials armed her.
And then there is her name. The transformation from Vera Mindy Chokalingam to Mindy Kaling is a story of class, colonialism, colour and contestations. Kaling has shared that her middle name was chosen because the parents wanted an 'American' name for their daughter as they were planning to move to the US. The baby was already being groomed to be an American. And later Chokalingam became shortened to Kaling as she realised how difficult to pronounce the original surname was deemed by her fellow Americans.
Doing it all to fit in.
But what does one do to the skin colour? Coming from a culture where fairness creams and soaps occupy an almost divine status and growing up in one where whiteness still mattered very much, what chances did Kaling have despite her elite education and family background?
The Beast of Beauty
This is where individual talent takes the centre stage. Working as intern, or assistant on various A-list TV shows, Kaling got noticed because she was an oddity. A not-so-attractive South Asian woman with an impressive CV. But she was not going to be cast as a leading lady or even an exotic love interest in a scenario where the rubrics of judging even South Asian women's attractiveness are firmly emanating from whiteness. In her essay 'The Whitening of South Asian Women', Bhoomi K Thakore says,
"...we have more examples of nonwhite characters, actors, writers, and producers than in the history of US media. However, as I will argue here, regardless of physical representation, the ideologies remain based on a dominant reliance on White phenotype—one that is further justified in our current political era in which nonwhiteness is seen as both negative and abnormal."
Male producers and casting bosses were, and still somewhat are, informed by the beauty ideals enshrined in Caucasian whiteness.
Kaling decided to capitalise on her otherness rather than chasing to be a 'fit in'.
It's Mindy Kaling's Time
Kaling's degree in playwriting and her humour became her ticket to Hollywood. As a co-writer of The Office, she could overcome the deluge of stereotyped roles. Being one of the co-creators allowed her to flesh out the character of Kelly Kapoor that went beyond diversity inclusion.
The Right-wing wave of anti-immigrant sentiment is on the rise in the US. Kaling's adopted Americanness allows her to storm through stereotypes and project people of colour as people and not caricatures.
By 2045, nonwhites are projected to become the majority in the US. One can only hope that media producers understand what that means. Whiteness—and the accompanying essentialising of race—in media has been under constant criticism. The success of the Black Panther franchise has hammered the idea home that the days of an all-white cast and crew are over. Yes, the impact of the Trump presidency's racial ideologies will linger on, but people like Kaling navigate it masterfully.
It is Kaling's time. And she knows it.