In 2012, Mindy Kaling burst onto our television screens as Mindy Lahiri, the wacky, outrageous protagonist of The Mindy Project. Though she idolized the sweethearts of classic romantic comedies, Mindy was a different breed of leading lady. She flaunted her psychedelic wardrobe and pathological love of Beyoncé. She was charming, but narcissistic and self-assured to the point of absurdity. And, perhaps most notably, she was Indian-American.
“There’s a palpable excitement when someone has the part of a lead actress on a sitcom [and] does not look how you would normally think she would look,” Kaling said at the Women in the World Summit in New York on Thursday. She joined moderator Alicia Menendez, anchor and correspondent at Fusion, for a panel discussion titled “Why Not Me?”— also the title of Kaling’s second memoir.
By now, Kaling has firmly cemented herself in Hollywood as an admired writer and actress.
In addition to writing, producing, and starring in her own show, Kaling has provided voice work for the acclaimed animated film Inside Out and written two New York Times-bestselling memoirs.
But Kaling’s path to success as a woman of color has been a tangled one. When Menendez asked the actress if she would have been able to secure a leading role on television without creating it herself, Kaling replied: “I think the slightly sad answer is no.… Not when I was in Hollywood, when I moved out there ten years ago.”
Kaling got her break as a writer and supporting actor on NBC’s The Office. At around the same time, she wrote a pilot with a friend called “Mindy and Brenda.” Kaling was not allowed to play the titular character, though she wanted to. When executives couldn’t find an Indian-American woman to fill the role, they tried to cast a white actress, but the show never came to fruition.
In 2012, Kaling pitched a single-camera comedy called the The Mindy Project to Fox. This time the show was picked, but Kaling told Menendez that executives were thrown for a loop by her character, who — among other things — religiously watches Bill O’Reilly and believes that recycling “makes America look poor.”
“Because there’s so much excitement to get it right and have the character be a shining example of a minority, it was very problematic for people that I wanted to be a really flawed, delusional, funny character,” she explained. “As an actress, that’s way more fun. Most television shows you watch, the most predominant characteristic of the lead female is that she’s nice.”
As devotees of the show know, Mindy Lahiri was ultimately permitted to shine in all her loopy glory. The character is a New York-based ob-gyn on a desperate quest for her Prince Charming, whom she finds in the form of her co-worker Danny Castellano (Chris Mesina). In spite of its rom-com trappings, The Mindy Project manages to be consistently subversive. Mindy is a walking (and bedazzled) battle cry against stereotypes of feminine delicacy. She values her career as much as her love life. She is unabashed about her affinity for sex. She says things like “It’s so weird being my own role model.”
Kaling knows all too well that television characters like Mindy — brazen, confident, and complicated — are rare. “I think that there’s this feeling when you’re [creating a show] that no one wants to see a type A creative person on TV because that’s not soft and likeable,” she said. “I think the reason is that people don’t want to turn off men … because of a woman who is too assertive or confident.”
In creating Mindy, Kaling also wanted to pay homage to her mother, who died of cancer in 2012. “My mother was at once the most hardworking and glamorous person I had ever met,” Kaling said. “My character is very tireless but is impeccably dressed—some of that comes from my mom. In fact, when my mom got sick, she was very worried that her appearance was kept up. Which is tough when you’re doing chemo.”
Her voice broke. “That was very moving to me.”
In its fourth season, now on Hulu, The Mindy Project has become one of the most quietly radical series on television. Without spoiling too much of the narrative, season four sees Mindy grappling with life as a working mother and — to the surprise of many fans — a single mother.
“People always talk about the marriage plot, which is when two people get together and get married, and that’s sort of the end of the story,” Kaling said during the Summit. “We had an opportunity when we went to Hulu to show what romance is like after that.”
“Any comedian will tell you that some of the best comedy comes from pain,” Kaling added. “It was very fun to explore that fairytale that completely blew up in [Mindy’s] face.”
Picking apart the relationship that had formed the backbone of the series was a bold move, one that ran the risk of alienating Mindy Project viewers. But Kaling felt strongly about pursuing this unexpected path for her character, and she stuck with it. Throughout her years in Hollywood, Kaling has learned to maintain her resolve. She says, in fact, that when her employees try to argue with her decisions, she will often walk out of the room.
“I am very decisive, but I also care what people think of me,” Kaling explained. “I want it to be a certain way, but if I stay for too long, I’m like, ‘But there’s some wiggle room.’ … I’m very assertive, even to the point of being brusque, and then I just send cupcakes.”
“Do you sleep?” Menendez asked.
“I’ve said this before and it sounds so maudlin, but it’s true: I am literally living the dream that I had when I was a six-year-old kid who would watch television,” Kaling replied. “When you have your life’s dream, you don’t want to sleep because living your life is so fun. Even the battles you have are fun battles.”
Of course, living the dream comes with its downsides. “My only thing is, I’m like, ‘What’s next?’” Kaling said. “Because I didn’t dream big enough for what I could do.”
“What is next?” Menendez asked.
“I don’t know, maybe I should have a kid or something,” Kaling replied. “That seems to enrich people’s lives.”
She paused for a moment, and then continued with a grin, “Or a car … Everyone’s talking about Teslas now, right?”
Additional reporting by Abbie Hurewitz.