Indian doc tickles US funny bones

By Tim Walker

Immigrant heritage inspires Mindy Kaling's popular sitcom which she writes, directs, produces and stars in.

Kaling has already gone head-to-head with the best, as a writer, producer and actor on the acclaimed US remake of  The Office . Photo / Supplied
Kaling has already gone head-to-head with the best, as a writer, producer and actor on the acclaimed US remake of The Office . Photo / Supplied

Vera Chokalingam was conceived in Nigeria, where her Indian parents Avu, an architect, and Swati, a gynaecologist, were living at the time. If this sounds unlike the beginnings of an American comedy origins story, hang on a moment: Avu and Swati, planning to move to the US, nicknamed their unborn daughter after the female half of Mork & Mindy, one of the few American shows on Nigerian television. Several months later, in June 1979, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Vera - otherwise known as Mindy - Kaling came into the world.

Now, with her own titular sitcom, The Mindy Project, nearing the end of its first season on US television, Kaling has fulfilled the destiny inherent in her nickname. She writes, directs, produces and plays Dr Mindy Lahiri, who, like Swati, is an obstetrician-gynaecologist. She also, she says, inherited her immigrant mother's work ethic and tolerance for long hours, thanks to which she is one of very few Indian-Americans playing a lead role in a American show, and one of even fewer to also be a show-runner.

During the 1990s, the most prominent Indian face on US television was that of Apu, the stereotypical Indian store-owner of The Simpsons (voiced by a white American actor, Hank Azaria).

In the past decade, however, the second-generation children of those who arrived in the US after changes to immigration law in 1965 have made their presence felt in shows such as Lost, Heroes, The Big Bang Theory and Parks and Recreation. Kaling's show occasionally draws attention to her ethnicity for comic purposes. (When a car almost runs her character down during a drunken bike ride, for example, she yells at the driver, "racist!") But Kaling's immigrant heritage is largely incidental, and in that respect the show represents progress. In essence, it's a straightforward romantic comedy about a thirtysomething's sexual travails, with just a sprinkling of hospital procedural.

"I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists," Kaling recently told New York magazine. "I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self-categorise myself into a smaller group than I'm able to compete in?"

Kaling has already gone head-to-head with the best, as a writer, producer and actor on the acclaimed US remake of The Office. Her character, air-headed customer service rep Kelly Kapoor, was a minor role, but Kaling was a major presence in the writers' room, and was nominated for an Emmy Award for a 2009 episode that she co-wrote.

"I'm not good at anything except writing jokes," she said. "I wasn't good at sports, I wasn't good at anything artsy, ever. I think there was a real worry for a while about what I would be good at. I was just this chubby little Indian kid who looked like a nerd. It wasn't until I was in high school that I was like, I guess I like writing dialogue. So that's how I got into it. And I loved Saturday Night Live.

After graduating from the Ivy League Dartmouth College in 2001, Kaling moved with her best friend Brenda Withers to New York, where, two years later, the pair wrote and performed in the hit play Matt & Ben. The off-Broadway production, which was praised by Time magazine and the New Yorker, was a heavily fictionalised portrayal of the writing of the Oscar-winning screenplay Good Will Hunting, by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.

Kaling played Affleck, completing the miraculous transformation into a 1.8m, lantern-jawed Boston man by wearing a tracksuit. It got her the job on The Office which led to movie work and Kaling has become a peripheral player in the Judd Apatow comedy stable.

The writers' room was also where Kaling met her close friend, co-writer and on-again, off-again beau, B.J. Novak. Both were 24 when they joined The Office, and "kind of fell in love through doing that", Kaling says, and then dated on and off for a couple of years, "and now we are just, like, best friends". Novak is a consulting producer on The Mindy Project, and makes an appearance on screen as a Latin professor whom Dr Lahiri briefly dates.

The Mindy Project struggled at first to attract a large US audience, though it has proven sufficiently popular among women under 35 to warrant its renewal for a second season. It even performed a somewhat drastic mid-season cast reshuffle, cutting surplus characters, in an attempt to hone its appeal.

Kaling's show has been compared to New Girl, Zooey Deschanel's post-Bridesmaids single-gal sitcom.

And Kaling has been compared to Tina Fey, the star and creator of 30 Rock, not least by herself. In the introduction to her bestselling 2011 book of essays and personal observations, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Kaling anticipated comparisons with Fey's Bossypants, and apologised for her failure to live up to those high expectations.

"What I'm proud of about my book is that I'm giving a lot of opinions, but I don't give any advice," she told the Huffington Post. "I'm 31 and I'm not married and having kids. I'm five-foot-three [1.6m]. I weigh, like, 150 pounds [68kg] and I'm not in this position to be telling people how to live.

That is not strictly true. The book opens with a piece of advice, albeit tongue-in-cheek. "Sometimes teenage girls ask me for advice about what they should be doing if they want a career like mine one day," Kaling writes. "There are basically two ways to get where I am: (1) Learn a provocative dance and put it on YouTube; (2) Convince your parents to move to Orlando and home-school you until you get cast on a kids show, or do what I did, which is (3) Stay in school and be a respectful and hardworking wallflower, and go to an accredited non-online university."

After the book was extracted in the New Yorker - as Fey's had been previously - Salman Rushdie sent Kaling a tweet to congratulate her.

To Rushdie, that celebrated chronicler of the South Asian immigrant experience, Kaling replied with a romcom reference: "It goes without saying, I loved your cameo in the Bridget Jones movie."

TV Profile

Who: Mindy Kaling
What: The Mindy Project
When and where: Series debut tonight, 9.30pm on Four


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