As a kid growing up in suburban Connecticut in the late 90s and early 2000s, my only reference to any vaguely relatable Indian-American woman in the public eye was Jhumpa Lahiri, a Pulitzer-winning author with a Victorian seriousness. Known for her tailored and proper fiction about a newly emerging Indian diaspora, Lahiri was brilliant, if a bit prim. Nearly two decades later we have Mindy Kaling, star and creator of the eponymously titled show The Mindy Project. As the character of Mindy Lahiri, an OB/GYN with guy problems, Kaling appears to give a winking nod to the author's cultural significance.
So much of Asian-American diasporic literature and film focuses on profound issues of existence and identity, but seldom do Asian-Americans have the space and agency to, well, be shallow, interested in boys, nail art, and You've Got Mail. For one thing, Mindy Lahiri, the protagonist and simultaneous anti-heroine, is both the cliché model minority (a successful doctor) and the conventional hot mess (think Meg Ryan meets Lena Dunham). For another, both Mindys get annoyed at any mention of otherness or ethnicity.
Perhaps it's an in-your-face response to the whiteness of rom-coms, where she, a self-described 'chubby' Indian woman, is the center of attention, the narcissistic, flawed, and inscrutable object of desire.
Kaling, the Dartmouth-educated child of Indian immigrants, author of two best-selling books and former cast-member of The Office, is frequently on the receiving end of questions about race. When asked in 2014 whether it was a conscious decision for her to be the only female doctor of color on the show, Kaling snapped, "I'm a fucking Indian woman who has her own fucking network television show, OK?" She continued, exasperated: "I have four series regulars that are women on my show, and no one asks any of the shows I adore [...] why no leads on their shows are women or of color." Speaking with NPR that same year, she opined, "I think that it's insidious to be spending more of your time reflecting about your otherness rather than doing the hard work of your job." Kaling seems uninterested in joining the ranks of comedians like Aziz Ansari, Russell Peters, or Kal Penn, who frequently refer to their race and cultural background. And yet by simply being herself, Kaling already is—and always has been_—_a part of that heritage. The decision to assimilate, after all, is an equally valid, if less popular reaction to diaspora.
Many critics disdain her rejection of identity politics, though perhaps her stance is a meaningful act in itself. For the character of Mindy Lahiri, it means a world where she is allowed to be shallow, where she can make it all about cute guys and awkward failures and one-liner zingers and besties if she wants to. By employing numerous references to mainstream love stories in cinema, Kaling has spun her own protagonist's romantic plight into a kind of rosy and idealistic web. Kaling, the author, even writes in her second book, Why Not Me?: "I don't want to be real! When I think of things that are 'real,' I think of income taxes and Putin's invasion of Ukraine. Real is bad! I want fantasy!"
Despite her desire to avoid such realities, at times it seems Kaling wishes to subvert the average-girl-next-door rom-com image, conveying the message that one doesn't have to be a petite blonde with socioeconomic means to get powerful, attractive white men and possibly achieve a happy ending. Perhaps it's an in-your-face response to the whiteness of rom-coms, where she, a self-described "chubby" Indian woman, is the center of attention, the narcissistic, flawed, and inscrutable object of desire. In fact, Kaling's protagonist is so self-involved that Al Jazeera called Mindy Lahiri's character "ahistorical," arguing that Kaling "appears to be a woman without any family or community," "a character simply born of the imagined community of lovelorn career women whose identities are defined purely by what they buy."
That may have been true, until now. Season four begins with just that issue, further turning Mindy Lahiri's world into a gleeful caricature of itself. The whole episode is bisected into two bizarre situations: Mindy is dreaming throughout the whole episode while Danny, unbeknownst to her, is in India with her parents. In her dream, Mindy is still in her 20s, happily married to Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a handsome reality-show producer; she and Danny (Chris Messina)—her love interest throughout the series and father of the unborn child—are no longer on talking terms; she is having a steamy affair with the holistic quack above her OB/GYN practice; she has a lavish apartment; and, the kicker, she is no longer pregnant.
Meanwhile, in real life, Danny made the dramatic trek to India to convince a pair of hip Lahiri parents (who drop pop-culture references every other sentence and appear just as quirky and vain as their daughter) to give Mindy to him in good faith. He tells them he loves Mindy and is the father of her child, but doesn't want to get married. They give him their blessing because, as forward-thinking people, they are just glad that somebody loves her the way Danny does. The casualness with which Kaling introduces a character's family history is telling of her interest in the future, rather than the past.
On Motherboard: We Talked to Aziz Ansari About Why Smartphone Dating Sucks
And the future is what Kaling embodies very self-consciously. She knows there has never been a situation where an Indian-American woman on TV is giving birth out of wedlock with parents who are uncommonly chill about it. There has never been an Indian-American woman who makes her male characters constantly comment on her weight only to humorously brush it off (Kaling has often said she would be more offended by being called not smart or witty than not beautiful). Kaling understands all these statements about her being a "pioneer," but rejects it. Her act of dissent, it would seem, is to just make all this seem normal—like the content is no big deal. It refuses to acknowledge that her place in life as a major player in the world of comedy, especially as a woman of color, took a lot of hustle.
Kaling's world—and, indeed, perhaps the world of the future—is one where she doesn't have to look like Meg Ryan to be worthy of desire, where a dream of romance sold to white girls can now be sold back (and bought, believed, fantasized about) by a brown girl. It's a feat to normalize a consistently othered face, and despite the critics' cries, Kaling knows that very well.
Follow Janaki on Twitter.
The Mindy Project airs on Tuesdays on Hulu.