Mindy Kaling once got mistaken for Malala Yousafzai. For real. It was at a party hosted by The New Yorker. Kaling was attending it with her friend, award-winning author Zadie Smith. “We had gone after another writers’ party, and Mindy was dressed to the nines,” recalls Smith, over coffee. We were meeting Smith a day before our shoot with Kaling was to take place, when she regaled us with this story. Upon entering The New Yorker soirée, Smith recalls the octogenarian author Gay Talese casually asking Mindy if she was Malala. Aghast, but with her trademark deadpan, ‘exsqueeze me’ kind of wit, Kaling retorted, “Do I look like I’ve been shot in the head?”
Hilarious as that sounds, the case of mistaken identity is reflective of an insular generalisation of South-Asians in the west. That was a few years ago. Since then, even though the representation of our tribe has expanded across entertainment streams, it is Kaling’s rapid ascent onto Hollywood’s primarily white landscape that has been remarkably inspiring.
Here is a primer. It was while she was a student at Dartmouth College (New Hampshire) — “not that known for its arts and theatre community” — where she explored her passion for writing and acting. “What was great was that the school was in the middle of nowhere. So, I’d write and act in these sketch shows and plays. It’d be the only thing to do in town. And everybody would come, which was helpful in giving me this inflated sense of confidence,” says Kaling.
“That is what I took with me to Hollywood. If I went to a school with more people who were interested in this, and there was a bigger pool to compete with, I don’t know if I would even have this career now.”
Kaling moved to New York after graduating in August 2001. She shortened her original surname, Chokalingam, and started doing stand-up. “We were so optimistic. Then 9/11 happened, and the subway shut down for weeks, and we were stuck in Brooklyn. I was here for three years. Then I moved to Los Angeles to do an absurdly long 50-minute play called Matt & Ben that I had written with my best friend, Brenda Withers. I played Ben Affleck; she was Matt Damon.”
As luck would have it, Greg Daniels saw her performance, and hired her to write for The Office (2005-2013) and also play the role of Kelly Kapoor on the show. She did that for eight years. Right after, she helmed her own wildly successful sitcom, The Mindy Project (2012-2017). In the middle, she authored three books: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me (2011), Questions I Ask When I Want To Talk About Myself (2013) and Why Not Me? (2016). “Now I’m kind of doing movies and producing shows,” she says. Currently, she serves as the EP (executive producer), co-writer and (guest) star on Champions. And by movies, it’s not just any movies. Last year, there was considerable slayage when she starred in A Wrinkle In Time with Oprah Winfrey (they text frequently; yes really), and June will see an enviable all-female cast in Ocean’s 8. She’s also acting in a film she’s written, Late Night, with Emma Thompson. It’s being directed by Nisha Ganatra, whose credits include directing hit TV shows like Transparent, The Mindy Project, Girls and Mr Robot, among others.
“Between Ocean’s 8, A Wrinkle In Time and Late Night, I was just thinking: I don’t know what it is like to act with a man anymore,” laughs Kaling. “In the past year and a half, my film career has been with A-list women, where the median age is 46, and that’s the real change I think.” It’s also a sign of the times. “It explains why something like Big Little Lies did so well. We were so starved of this representation.”
Kaling is candid when she says, “I come from TV sitcoms, and to be in a sci-fi movie like A Wrinkle In Time is a leap. I got catapulted into this genre that I would never have been in, if it wasn’t for the director, Ava DuVernay. I don’t see how she could see me embody this beatific woman, Mrs Who, who only speaks in quotations when I am such a chatterbox, who has her own opinions all the time, and is so expressive.”
But the real treat, Kaling admits, was working with both Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon, for whom acting is just one arm of the many things they do. “The acting was obviously incredible with these Oscar winners and nominees. But to learn about how they manage their companies and families — that was invaluable.”
Kaling is now gearing up for the release of Ocean’s 8. “This is going to be so strange when I say it. But I saw it and I was like, ‘I wish I was in that movie. But oh wait! I am in that movie,’” she laughs. “There are certain projects that you hear about in Hollywood, and everybody wants to be part of those. But I had a pre-heartbreak, as you know the likelihood of it even happening is so small, particularly for [someone like] me. I was doing 24 episodes a year for a TV show,” says Kaling, who had willed herself into not thinking about this one.
But then there was a funny turn of events when her agent called, saying that the film’s writer-director, Garry Ross, wanted to meet her. “I thought he wanted me to do a rewrite on the script to add some of the funny bits. So, we were going to some un-fancy place called House Of Pies. I had shown up as a writer, in sweatshirts and no make-up. Halfway through our meal, I realised he was thinking of me as an actress to play the character of a daughter of a jeweller in the film. Gary is Jewish, and most of the jewellers on the east coast are either Jewish or Indian. And he thought it would be cool if the character was Indian. So, that’s my long winded way of saying how I got involved.”
In a way, the film is also representational of this era, and tugs at our feminist core. While the earlier Ocean’s franchise comprised an all-male cast, with a token actress (Julia Roberts or Catherine Zeta-Jones), this one might just be the zeitgeist we all need. A similar paradigm shift is visible across television as well.
“For such a long time, our own studios and networks underestimated the American people, especially when it came to what they wanted to see. So now, I think they are realising that we can make money this way. Melissa McCarthy is a major movie star and doesn’t look like a traditional movie star; Amy Schumer too. She’s selling out Madison Square Garden. There’s Broad City as well. So, there is an audience for it,” says Kaling, adding that nothing makes her happier than seeing Indian stand-up comics perform.
What made the world fall in love with Mindy Lahiri in The Mindy Project was the fact that she looked like one of us on a prime-time TV show. Kaling is a first-generation Indian-American, who made it in the business through her sheer talent, conviction and hard work. Essentially, she was what we didn’t know we wanted. Having grown up on a diet of sitcoms through the ’80s and ’90s — series that did not showcase families like her own — has helped Kaling lend a different, and more sensitive perspective to the characters she creates and portrays. “Growing up, I definitely thought it was sociably acceptable for boys to be funny; that there was something not feminine about being funny, and that sticks with you. As a comedian, you always talk about that wound you had as a child, and you source your comedy from that,” she says.
Her character, an obstetrician-gynaecologist, was based on Mindy’s mother, Swati Roysircar, and took the last name from author Jhumpa Lahiri. But it was her love for bold sartorial choices that really drew in a whole new audience. Besides the high-fashion luxury labels — “I would be wearing Céline, Chanel and Prada” — Kaling also championed (lesser-known back then, not anymore) artists like Hatecopy and Babbuthepainter on her show, either by displaying their art or wearing the clothes they made.
Her personal love for fashion, however, she credits to her mother. “My mum was always interested in fashion. She was always well put-together. We didn’t, like, go hiking. She didn’t even like a vacation. She just loved shopping and clothes. Sometimes, we would go shopping at the mall, and we’d buy outfits and come back home, and she would call her younger sister over, and we would do like a mini fashion show. I just inherited that from her. That’s how we bonded, so much so that my love for fashion is intractably linked with the love for my mum.”
Kaling was born in 1979 to a Tamilian father, Avu Chokalingam, an architect, and a Bengali mother, who first met while working in Nigeria. They emigrated to the US the year Kaling was born. “One of the bigger regrets in my life is that I don’t speak any of the Indian languages. It would be great to know Hindi, Bengali or Tamil. But they moved to the United States, and so I only know English,” she says. Kaling also aced Latin in school.
Kaling was one of those lucky children, who are blessed with a particular kind of purpose. “I’ve always been a decisive person, even as an eight-year-old.” She spent a large part of her youth analysing hit comedy shows from her childhood. “The fact that I was interested in comedy as a girl at that age was already so strange to people. On top of that, I was a kid of Indian immigrants, who were not involved in the niche industry of comedy writing or acting. I have to give my parents credit for being incredibly supportive — and I am talking about nearly 20 years ago. I think their encouragement came from their own sense of adventure.”
It is this gift of open-mindedness that she wants to give her daughter, Kit. And that’s the greatest role Kaling is playing right now: that of a newborn mother. A few minutes after we meet at The Pierre for breakfast, Kaling shows me a picture of her five-month-old daughter, Katherine Swati Kaling. She is all levels of cute, gets her middle name from Kaling’s mother, and is lovingly called Kit by everyone. “She looks more like a Kit than a Katherine, but maybe she’ll grow into a Katherine.” So, what’s life like now? Has motherhood, with its many pleasures and challenges, shifted something inside? “Gosh! I feel like exactly the same person. Except that I was never someone who would consider myself a baby person. I would ask questions about motherhood or parenthood to friends who had kids before me, but all I was told was about the little amount of sleep you get for yourself, because a baby will wake up twice in the middle of the night. That sounded so difficult. But what they don’t articulate is the feeling of accomplishment to soothe a crying baby to stop and start smiling, or getting them to fall back to sleep. No one talks about that feeling. That feeling is better than 25 minutes of sleep that you missed. It is very easy to describe the toughness of parenting with a baby, and it is very hard to articulate the joys of it.”
Motherhood hasn’t slowed down Kaling. She might just be the hardest-working woman in the business. Writing, directing, acting, producing, show-running. Does it ever get overwhelming? “I’m not well-rounded, as a person. I don’t play any instruments. I don’t speak any other languages. I just do these things, and I love doing them, and I’m extremely busy with work. But now that I have my daughter, it is kind of the first time there is something I want to go home to. There is never a boyfriend that I liked more than the experience of having a child. I love being with her.”
Having been to India last when she was 14, she is contemplating coming back now more than ever because of Kit. It’s also about reaching out and reconnecting with one’s roots. Motherhood can do that. It can also make you work twice as hard. Until then, brace yourself for the real power of Kaling to unleash. You ain’t seen nothing yet.
Photographs: MIKE ROSENTHAL/TACK ARTIST GROUP
Styling: MALINI BANERJI
Hair: MARC MENA/EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS;
Make-up: JANICE KINJO/EXCLUSIVE ARTISTS;
Manicurist: LEONOBI GALVEZ (leonobi_galvez)
Production: RYAN FAHEY AND ALEXEY GALETSKIY
Assisted by: RAHUL VIJAY, DIVYA GURSAHANI. IVA DIXIT , TANVI GALA AND AANYA GUPTA (STYLING)
JEREMY JAMES AND RICHARD LUONG (PHOTOGRAPHY);
Digital Tech: ERIC JUKELEVICS;
Set design and props: SERENA MERRIMAN Airline Partner: ETIHAD AIRWAYS
Stay and location courtesy: THE PIERRE NEW YORK, A TAJ HOTEL