By now you’ve probably heard that The Mindy Project is cancelled. The half-hour comedy, a cherished offspring of comedian/actress/executive producer/writer/all-round incredible lady Mindy Kaling, has constantly lived in renewal limbo, despite being the not-so-guilty pleasure of critics and television viewers over the course of its three season run.
You’ve also probably heard that Hulu, the American video streaming service, is in talks with Universal Television to negotiate a multi-season deal for The Mindy Project, meaning that it could be resurrected from its shallow grave in the days and months to come.
I need a moment that, irrespective of the renewal possibility, allows me to react to this horrible, terrible, no good news. Maybe melodramatically. I feel like Mindy (the fictional one? the real one? likely both) would appreciate that.
The Mindy Project debuted when I was in my final year of university. While many people who tuned in were either New Girl fans or followed Kaling’s repertoire as Kelly Kapoor on The Office, I tuned in partially due to curiosity, and partially because, well, it was the first time I had seen a female South Asian as not just a lead, but the lead character on a cable television show.
This post should probably indicate that I’m a big fan of The Mindy Project, but I’ll just say it again to reconfirm: I am a big fan of The Mindy Project. I think the writing is some of the best out there for comedy shows. The cast is impeccable. The boys are cute. The endless romantic-comedy element is easy to get hooked onto. It is engaging, colourful and comedically differs from so many offerings out there. It has Mindy Kaling.
Growing up, even with the ever omnipresent role of Bollywood in my upbringing and the growing international affection for the industry, I felt the absence of seeing South Asians in Western film and television. Any time I would see someone who appeared to be of a similar background, particularly on American television, it felt like a partial victory; many times, they were dressed in tropes and clichés, though sometimes, like on Heroes, we got some really great, fleshed out South Asian characters. Those were a rarity for that time.
It’s not that I didn’t identify with characters of other backgrounds (I’d like to think that my affinity for American teen dramas forged a lot of bonds in my life), but there was an obvious gap in identifiable faces in film and television. Bollywood wouldn’t suffice; I wanted to see a modern, born-and-raised all round’ North American girl who happened to be South Asian as well. Someone who was an actual byproduct of growing up in a multicultural world without the influence of traditional parents or cultural obligations (though yes, that is certainly one facet of the South Asian community). Someone who was like me.
There’s been some progress. I mean, growing up I never thought I’d see Anil Kapoor on 24 or an Indian wedding on 90210. I never thought I’d see a full-out half hour comedy taking place in India (NBC’s Outsourced) or giggle at Jon Hamm navigating Mumbai streets. I never thought that an actor like Irfaan Khan would find simultaneous success and respect in Hollywood and Bollywood across big films and diverse roles, or that Freida Pinto would be the video girl in a Bruno Mars piece. Slumdog Millionaire and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, while problematic, initiated a new perspective for global audiences. Life of Pi. Melinda Shankar. Ravi Shankar. Hannah Simone. Raj on The Big Bang Theory. Kal Penn in Superman Returns and Harold and Kumar Go To Whitecastle. Priyanka Chopra. Amitabh Bachan in The Great Gatsby. Anupam Kher in Silver Linings Playbook. M. Night Shymalan.
I’m sure when you compare these examples to the statistics, the progress is minimal. However, when I think of all these small strides, I can’t help but feel even worse about The Mindy Project‘s cancellation.
Mindy Kaling is a Dartmouth graduate. She was a staff writer and star on The Office, interned with Conan O’Brien and wrote a successful novel (with a second on the way this fall). She has an incredible sense of fashion. She is gorgeous (and no, not gorgeous “for a curvy girl” or has an incredible sense of fashion “for a curvy girl”, just gorgeous. Period.) She is a feminist. She is hilarious. She is the executive producer, star and writer on her own show. And yes, she is South Asian.
Her television alter-ego, Mindy Lahiri, is equally as cool, fashionable, hilarious, intelligent, successful and obviously, gorgeous. She is also a pop culture aficionado, feminine, emotional, often misguided, has a realistic, unabashed love affair with junk food and is pretty melodramatic. She goes after what she wants, has her heart broken and breaks a couple along the way, but she is assertive, vulnerable and confident. She isn’t perfect, she isn’t always realistic, yet, she is identifiable. She is an incredible woman.
She is also Hindu and South Asian, but she doesn’t let her culture define her even though it is certainly a part of her.
Kaling constructs Lahiri as the character and personality that I have always wanted to see on television. I am not saying I am anything like Lahiri; in fact, I am very unlike her on most levels. But for once, we have a character that is not shrouded in stereotypes or who makes an active choice to go on an exploratory journey into her roots. She is doctor, an occupation highly valued in the South Asian community (alongside engineer, lawyer, accountant), but she is not in the career stream because of societal expectations or operates in a setting where she is constantly hiding her life away from her family.
Or maybe she secretly is and we just haven’t come to that point yet (well, we sort of have, but I’m not here to talk about plot points). I love that Mindy Lahiri is defined as a dynamic individual, and I hope that viewers who either currently or intend to watch her show will look to her character for inspiration to be their own person. For some, they may determine that they enjoy and want their culture to be a definitive point in their identity and that is a wonderful choice in itself.
But it is also okay to be your own person outside of that realm. It is okay to prioritize other categorizes in your self-definition than age-old traditions, clothing and food. Embrace you for you, in all its glory and imperfections. Mindy Lahiri certainly represents this message to my generation, and I think it is something wonderful to embrace.
I value and celebrate Mindy Kaling for the same reasons that I value and celebrate all females in the film and television industry, past and present: she is a fighter who constantly faces career and creative obstacles and pushes her way through to create opportunities. I applaud her and others in the industry, both in front of and behind the camera, who are paving the way for future generations by reigniting the belief in the power of the arts, helping younger people realize that it is a viable career option and encouraging them to engage with the representation, diversity and gender politics in the arts and entertainment industry.
I particularly value Mindy’s presence in Hollywood because she is the role model that I wish I could have seen championing the industry while I was growing up; to have someone with a shared background (herein lies bias – her family also originates from South India) in the spotlight and redefine what it can mean to be a leading lady in this day. She would have inspired me then; she certainly inspires me now.
Mindy Kaling will likely find continued success in her career. She is too funny, too talented, too intelligent and too fabulous to get lost in a pile of has-beens and near-dreams. I am sure of it. That does not detract the loss of her show from cable television, but it brings a little comfort to the situation. In a way, it is unfortunate that we are facing the prospect of having to pay to see this talent play out in The Mindy Project, but I will take it over a complete loss of the show. It deserves a place in pop culture, and we need it, too.