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Much has been made–justifiably so–about the anemic diversity represented in film and television, most problematically when roles originally written for people of color are rewritten for white actors. So consider if you will the concept of a 5’ 4” woman of Indian descent writing and playing the part of a famously strapping white male actor – in 2002, no less. The off-Broadway play (that would be Matt & Ben, in case you were wondering) hardly seems like the breakout opportunity of a lifetime for anyone. But Vera Mindy Chokalingam, 23 years old and barely out of college at the time, is about as un-anyone as they come.
Matt & Ben was named one of Time magazine’s “Top Ten Theatrical Events of the Year,” and its co-writer/co-star (better known these days as Mindy Kaling) praised by The New York Times for her fine, deadpan sense of the absurd and the vicious. As fateful showbiz stories often go, in the audience one night was producer Greg Daniels, who was working on an American adaptation of The Office. He hired Kaling as a writer-performer on the show. Make that the only female writer on a staff of eight, and soon its most prolific. “Your average writer, when they get really good, I know how they got it,” Daniels told The New York Times. “I can see the steps. But I love how with Mindy, I don’t see how she does it.”
We have a speculation or two. Kaling grew up on Fawlty Towers and Saturday Night Live, and says she realized pretty early on that the only thing she really liked doing was writing dialogue. Listening to the characters on her shows, you get the feeling that there’s so much rapid-fire conversation looping in her head that it’s all she can do to keep up; no wonder Kelly Kapoor, Mindy Lahiri and their co-workers seem to spring fully formed like mini-Athenas from the crowded forehead of a comic Zeus. It also spills over into books (Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns and Why Not Me?) and a Twitter feed as random and entertaining as it is followed – by more than 7.5 million fans.
Kaling’s on-screen alter egos are at once reflections and antipodes of Kaling herself. They love and feed on the pop-culture they send up. They’re unapologetically self-involved and superficial, proof that Kaling has no problem being the target of her own gimlet-eyed humor. In its review of The Mindy Project’s first episode, The A.V. Club wrote, “What’s most intriguing about this project is just how harsh it is about its lead character, who is certainly not without flaws…Kaling has her eye on doing something more ambitious than the standard TV claptrap.” Say what you want about her characters, they are not clichés. Ambitious, demanding, egocentric, romantically messed up, yes, but not anything you’d find among the seven standard Hollywood-issue female roles she barbecued in a 2011 New Yorker piece. Which gives us high expectations for what she’ll do with her role in Sandra Bullock’s all-female remake of Ocean’s Eleven. High hopes, too, given how sorely comedy needs what she does.
It is funny how the honesty we love in bold female characters can still unsettle us in the women who play them. And maybe that’s why there remain many who are reluctant to make waves. Kaling is not among them. Talking to her, you sense an entitlement, but it’s one of privilege earned – through talent, risk, constantly proving one’s place at the table, and mostly, very hard work.
“I feel I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers out there,” Kaling has said. (And if you can convince an audience you’re Ben Affleck, why wouldn’t you?) Though she’s more than proven her point, let’s hope she’ll never stop making it.