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Sunday, July 05, 2020

Mindy Kaling: ‘I never saw any minority actors play lead characters in a high school movie’

The actor-producer talks about creating a credible Indian-American teenager to play the lead in her new show, Never Have I Ever

Written by Ektaa Malik | Published: May 31, 2020 6:40:54 am
mindy kaling, never have i ever A seat at the table: Mindy Kaling (centre) with John McEnroe

In 2005, Mindy Kaling rolled into the American TV space with the hugely popular and award-winning sitcom, The Office (2005-’13), which she helped write. Her character Kelly Kapoor, an Indian girl who liked shopping and obsessed over the lives of American film stars, was a breakthrough in how Indian Americans would come to be projected on screen — self-assured, sassy and without exaggerated desi-ness. Since then, the 40-year-old Indian-American actor, writer and producer has headlined The Mindy Project (2012-’17); created another sitcom, Champions (2018), and also appeared in Ocean’s 8 (2018), alongside Rihanna, Anne Hathaway and Sandra Bullock. Born to first-generation Indian migrants in Boston — a doctor mother and an architect father — Kaling is the poster child of a new Hollywood, where people from different ethnicities are finally breaking free of stereotypes. In Never Have I Ever, a 10-part series she has created and produced for Netflix, Kaling has given the world Devi Vishwakumar, an Indian-American teenager who is as concerned about her first kiss as she is about her SAT scores. In an email interview, Kaling talks about adapting bits of her life for the show and writing real characters. Excerpts:

There is talk about Never Have I Ever being based on your life. True?

Yes and no. I grew up in the 1980s and ’90s and didn’t want to do a period show, so that’s a big difference. I was nowhere near as brash and willful as Devi, but I can relate to her grief of losing a parent. Devi and I also share a similar struggle with our relationship to India. I was also a huge nerd.

It’s refreshing to see an Indian-American girl who wants a wholesome teenage experience.

I love that Devi has many different  obsessions that felt real to me. I wanted to get good grades as much as I wanted to have a boyfriend. I think that’s relatable  to everyone.

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan landed the role of Devi from an audition. Did it remind you of your first audition?

Lang (Fisher, co-creator) and I were charmed instantly by Maitreyi. She was so confident and comfortable in her skin, something pretty rare for a girl so young with no on-camera experience. When I auditioned back in the early 2000s (which was so rare anyway since I’ve written all my own parts), I never auditioned for Indian roles. They were white characters whom I just happened to be lucky enough to get an audition for.

How did you get tennis star John McEnroe to narrate the show?

My family grew up watching John and we loved him. He was a winner, but more importantly he was a fighter. I think my parents related to that. I reached out to him and met up with him in New York. I think he signed on because it was so different from what he normally does, and because his kids like The Office.

What high-school movies did you watch while growing up and what was your high school experience like?

I watched everything. Movies as different as Clueless (1995) and The Breakfast Club (1985) had an enormous impact on me. None of them were like my life, and I never saw any minority actors play lead characters in any high-school movie, but I loved them nonetheless. I was a hard worker, obedient and ambitious.

Why did it take so long for Hollywood to finally get a mainstream Indian-American character?

I think we really benefited from the explosion of content in the past 10 years. Now, networks and streaming platforms are ready to take risks on unconventional stories because there is such a need for content.

What’s the way forward? We are seeing more and more people of colour in the mainstream space, like Hasan Minhaj and Ali Wong.

I think it’s mostly important for people like me, who are in a position where they can choose to create work about people of colour, to keep making those shows.

Were your parents supportive of your career choices?

The greatest gift my parents gave me were their open minds. They had never had any members of their family in the arts or in Hollywood but they believed in me. They wanted me to be happy and let me follow my passion.

Is there a season two for Never Have I Ever in the works?

I hope so!

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