(February 8, 2023) Clad in a floral block print dress, posing in the vicinity of Jaipur’s very popular Amer Fort is how Indian-American producer, actor and screenwriter Mindy Kaling announced her arrival in India recently. Buzz has it that she is in the Pink City to scout for locations for her upcoming film with Priyanka Chopra Jonas. Thanks to the 43-year-old, the underrepresented minorities are finding a voice and visibility in the US pop culture. So much so that the Indian American has become the poster girl for South Asian arts, culture, and even quirks, on every media platform available.
Being the first woman of colour to break into an all-white men writers team at American sitcom The Office wasn’t an easy feat, but that’s Mindy Kaling for you – bold, fearless, and unabashed. For someone who began her journey at 24, the writer, producer, actor, and director has come a long way with immensely successful shows and films to her credit.
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An overlooked teenager finds solace in comedy
Born Vera Mindy Chokalingam in Massachusetts to a Tamil architect father and a Bengali doctor mother, Kaling’s life in Buckingham Browne & Nichols School was quite a dampener because, in her words, she was an “average overlooked” student. With no “cool” friends to hang out with, she found solace in comedy shows on American TV. It was Comedy Central, Monty Python sketches, and Saturday Night Live reruns that piqued her interest in comedy.
But this wallflower truly blossomed at Dartmouth College. From writing plays and acting in college dramas to singing, Mindy spread her wings as she graduated with a degree in playwriting.
At 19, this Global Indian got a summer internship at Late Night With Conan O’Brien. She reckons herself as the worst intern that the show had ever seen. “I treated my internship as a free ticket to watch my hero perform live on stage every day, and not as a way to help the show run smoothly by doing errands,” she wrote in her memoir.
The play that got her The Office
The internship might have been a facade but Mindy was sure that comedy was her true calling. Soon she packed her bags and moved to Brooklyn. But it wasn’t until 2002 that things started to move forward when her comedy play Matt and Ben debuted at the New York International Fringe Festival. Such was the popularity of the play that in no time it was transferred to Off-Broadway venue in East Village. It was here that American screenwriter and producer Greg Daniels saw Mindy perform and offered her a writing gig for the first season of The Office.
Damn this is a #TBT pic.twitter.com/3xk6UL5lbr
— Mindy Kaling (@mindykaling) September 8, 2016
At 24, she became the only woman and the only person of colour to join eight other writers on the show, which was nominated for an Emmy. Along with her writing credits, Kaling made her TV debut as a super sassy and fearless Kelly Kapoor in the hit American sitcom. She fully represented her Indianness with all its quirks on one of the most popular sitcoms of all time. With the progression of the show, she also became an executive producer and director, besides writing 24 episodes.
When sexism rocked her boat
Early on, Mindy faced sexism. Shortly after The Office was received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Comedy Series, the Television Academy told Mindy that she wouldn’t be eligible for an Emmy like the rest of the staff because there were too many producers on the show. “They made me, not any of the other producers, fill out a whole form and write an essay about all my contributions as a writer and a producer. I had to get letters from all the other male, white producers saying that I had contributed when my actual record stood for itself,” she told Elle. Her name was included in the final list; however, the show did not win an Emmy.
After being part of The Office for eight seasons, she decided to bid goodbye to the show, and released her first memoir, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? A hilarious account of her highs and lows in life, the book soon made it to the New York Times best-selling list.
The rise of a pop-culture icon
While The Office opened doors of opportunities for her, it was The Mindy Project that got her bigger recognition and fame. The 2012 show, that ran for six seasons, made Mindy the first woman of colour to have her network show. In no time, she broke the barriers of race and became an international pop culture icon. Such was the popularity that when the show moved from Fox TV in 2016 to Hulu’s version, she was pulling in an estimated $140,000 per episode. Moreover, she earned the third spot on the Forbes list of the highest-paid actresses on TV in 2017.
A popular name on television, Mindy also dipped her toes in Hollywood with films like A Wrinkle in Time, Ocean’s 8, and Late Night. Despite being in the entertainment industry for decades, Kaling felt like an outsider because of the constant reminders that she is different. “We talk about how representation matters in Hollywood, so much that it almost loses its meaning. But it’s actually real. Growing up, I realized that there was no one who looked like me on TV, so I often found myself drawing parallels to people who are like me on shows like the Cosby family or characters on white sitcoms. You cannot imagine how excited I was when Bend It Like Beckham came out. The idea that I could actually see people from my community onscreen blew my mind,” she told IANS.
Though she was representing Asians with her stories, the actor and producer revealed that her shows weren’t ethnicity-driven.
Never Have I Ever
With her 2020 Netflix show Never Have I Ever, Mindy broke barriers for Indians on the global stage. The popular series is one-of-its-kind that brought representation and diversity to the forefront, something that has always been a filler in most American sitcoms. She somehow shattered the glass ceiling by bringing South Asians alive on the screen like never before. Giving them a three-dimensional character got her a huge thumbs up from fans and critics alike.
However, her latest Velma has received backlash from fans across. Kaling has been a popular figure on American TV for a long time, but despite her fame, it has been a mixed bag for her. “It really doesn’t matter how much money I have. I’m treated badly with enough regularity that it keeps me humble,” she told Elle.
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