Lessons from Mindy

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Mindy Kaling and Chris Messina in a scene from “The Mindy Project.” (Photo: Jordin Althhaus, Universal Television)

The Signature Series Produced And Led By An Indian-American Leaves Viewers Asking If it ​Was​ Meant To Represent The ​South Asian Experience

In a recent episode of Hulu’s “The Mindy Project,” the show’s fast-talking Indian-American ob-gyn, Mindy Lahiri, applies for a job leading her department. She has the goods, the tenure and certainly the ambition. She also has to make it past a gantlet of interviewers who are white, male and totally unimpressed.

Rejected, the cocoa-skinned Mindy goes to bed wishing she were a white man. And because TV just loves a good dream sequence, she wakes up to find herself tall, blond, male and widely respected for no real reason at all.

“Don’t I need to tell you why I’m an effective leader?” this new Mindy – named Michael – asks when he interviews for the same job. Nope. It’s already his. “This has been an honor and a privilege,” she/he beams. “A real male privilege.”

Sure, the episode was the internet’s “Lord, give me the confidence of a mediocre white man” meme stretched into 28 minutes of television. But for “The Mindy Project,” gazing directly at the issues of race and gender felt new and reckless – and long overdue.

For the past five seasons, the show has been creaking along as a career-woman rom-com, a “Sex and the City” without the brutal disappointments and the real fear. And – almost as an aside – with a brown woman in the leading role.

Next week, “The Mindy Project” returns to Hulu for its final season. Now seems as good a time as any, then, to lament “The Mindy Project.” It was never quite the show you wanted it to be.

It qualifies as an old head in television’s newly diverse landscape. Before that show, most roles for South Asians were bit parts, went to men, and included terrorists, cab drivers and the odd medical professional. A major metropolitan newspaper once counted Apu from “The Simpsons” as a South Asian role – that’s how bad it was.

But even if you admire actress and creator Mindy Kaling, you have to acknowledge that “The Mindy Project” has skirted the subject of race for most of its run. “Woke” is a fairly new term, but let’s apply it retroactively: Although it starred a woman of color, “The Mindy Project” wasn’t that woke.

“I have to become the United Nations of shows?” Kaling asked in a 2013 interview with Entertainment Weekly, responding to criticism that her character dated only white men.

In today’s television landscape, populated by “Black-ish” and “Insecure” and “Master of None,” shows that present the everyday lives of people of color both as unique and utterly normal, it couldn’t have hurt, Min.

Things looked different when the show debuted in 2012 on Fox, a network then airing “New Girl” and “American Idol.” It was a classic medical comedy with a New Yorker protagonist leading a romantic life that bordered on bedlam. It was “Scrubs.”

(Photo: Twitter @mindykaling)

The show has driven viewers insane as it has grasped desperately for character arc – heck, it often doesn’t know which characters it wants to keep around for more than a few episodes. But “The Mindy Project” has also managed a milestone hundred-plus episodes with Kaling, a wunderkind writer from the days of NBC’s “The Office,” at the helm.

Fox dumped the show after three seasons: Ratings were weak-ish, averaging about 2 million viewers in Season 3, and co-showrunner Matt Warburton told the Hollywood Reporter that the network was weighing in frequently with tweaks. Days later, the upstart Hulu snatched it up like a yard-sale Renoir.

From there, “The Mindy Project” became a roller-coaster, changing cast members and boyfriends in ways that felt less like plot advancement and more like chaos. Somehow, it still managed to be one of the most subversive television shows about womanhood since … well, since ever. Because before it came along, there had never been a show written by and starring an Indian-American woman.

This is what Mindy Lahiri did represent: a modern, ambitious working woman who thought very highly of herself, even if the world didn’t. In one episode, she declared herself “a 10 in Chicago.” She went to bed in full makeup, dip-dyed the ends of her hair Reese Witherspoon blond. She also delivered some of the show’s sharpest, most memorable barbs under her breath, including a few asides about race – quick, stabby little missives directed at both whites (when her boyfriend’s mother assumes that Mindy, an ob-gyn, is the house cleaner) and at the privilege of Indian-Americans (when Mindy presumptively declares that a group of basketball players must be interested in her because black men love Indian women).

Under very few circumstances should all the South Asian actors making it in the United States be wadded together under a single headline. Comparing Kaling to Hasan Minhaj and Aziz Ansari will never reveal a thing about the zeitgeist. But here we are.

For the brown guy, this has been a particularly auspicious year, pop-culturally speaking. And what all these South Asian men have in common is that they all boldly approach race and culture and religion, subjects that Kaling has until very recently treated as radioactive.

Now, we’re speaking with reverence about the “religion episode” of “Master of None,” the arthouse comedy series (Is that a thing? It should be) starring the Indian-American Ansari, and “The Big Sick,” the sleeper hit film of the summer whose protagonist, Kumail Nanjiani, is Pakistani-American.

Riz Ahmed, a British-Pakistani actor and rapper, became a recognizable name thanks to star turns in HBO’s “The Night Of” and the latest “Star Wars” film.

And it was Minhaj, a slightly bro-ey, California-bred “Daily Show” correspondent and scion of Indian immigrants, who got to gleefully razz both an absentee president and the press corps as host of the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner this year. In his Netflix special, “Homecoming King,” Minhaj even delivers a line in his native tongue.

And in almost every case, the portrayals of brown women in these stars’ shows or films were lacking. In “Master of None,” “The Big Sick” and “The Night Of,” South Asian women lingered mostly on the sidelines as the men reached for more desirable partners – white women. In one scene in “The Big Sick,” a young Pakistani woman who vies for Nanjiani’s heart tries to appeal to the “X Files” fan by shouting “The truth is out there!” so awkwardly that many viewers thought she was being used as the butt of an unkind joke. But mostly, the South Asian women in these shows were just friend-zoned; bad, boring dates; or utter ciphers.

As “The Mindy Project” ends, we can’t help but feel the loss of a role for an Indian-American woman that was nuanced, that had some promise. Even if it wasn’t always perfect.

THE WASHINGTON POST

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