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The Mindy Project Leaves Behind Far More Than a Happy Ending
09.12.17
Photo by Paul Archuleta/Getty Images

There’s a certain kind of girl who gets to have a rom-com happy ending. She’s tall, willowy, blond and beautiful in a girl-next-door kind of way. She’s disarming but not intimidating; stunning, but doesn’t know it yet. Mindy Kaling is none of these things, and it’s part of what makes The Mindy Projectthe first show created by and starring an Indian-American, such a landmark piece of television history. As the show enters its final season, the stage is set for The Mindy Project to crystalize its important legacy.

The Mindy Project embraced its rom-com roots from the beginning. Mindy Kaling’s character, Mindy Lahiri, loves romantic comedies and lives her life as though she’s the Meg Ryan character in a Nora Ephron film. But that’s where the usual tropes end. By virtue of demographics, Lahiri isn’t the usual romantic heroine. Rather than bemoan this, she leans into it, claims it and upends many if not all of the usual rom-com tropes.

Mindy is loud. Mindy is annoying. Mindy is unlikeable. She’s constantly eating, she dresses in matching outfits like a toddler, she’s shallow and excessively vain. She’s self-centered to the point of self-delusion. She dates men who aren’t good for her and when she finally finds the one she loves, she doesn’t get her happy ending. Instead, she realizes how possessive and controlling he is and leaves him, despite having a new baby to care for. For all her flaws, she knows that she’s competent and accomplished and perfectly capable of going it alone.

There’s a lot of pressure to get things right when you’re the first. The Mindy Project was criticized early in its run for only casting white men as romantic leads and for never engaging with the racial politics of those relationships. But as time went on, the show began to address these issues in meaningful and interesting ways. The Mindy Project started to allow Lahiri to grow and change, and recognize that the fantasy of a romantic comedy rarely ever maps evenly onto real life, and that you can’t love a man into being right for you, no matter what the movies tell you.

The Mindy Project has also opened the door a little wider for other Indian-Americans to tell their stories in more clever and nuanced ways. Master of None, the critically acclaimed Netflix show created by and starring Aziz Ansari, owes quite a debt to Mindy’s spunky heroine. Ansari’s Dev is an aspiring actor who is similarly looking for love in a big city and realizing it isn’t quite as easy as the movies he loves make it seem. The two characters couldn’t be more dissimilar if they tried, but it’s exciting that they exist at the same time in the same television landscape: there’s more than one way to exist on television as an Indian-American. Master of None cleverly dealt with that very issue in its season one episode “Indians on TV.” People of all races are allowed to have a multiplicity of experiences.

Although not Indian, Kumail Nanjiani’s The Big Sick is an interesting take on being Pakistani on-screen. Loosely based on his own real life love story, Nanjiani was able to cast himself in the lead role, a feat still too rare for South Asian actors. While the film faced similar criticisms to The Mindy Project regarding its white romantic lead, it was still a coup of sorts: It is rare for the South Asian man to be cast as the love interest or be depicted as desirable in any way that didn’t heavily rely on archaic stereotypes.

The legacy of The Mindy Project lives on in the opportunities it created for other South Asian leads to make space for themselves on TV. Kaling’s little-show-that-could gave us not only the first Indian-American lead, but an accomplished professional woman who got to eat a little too much cake and sleep with the wrong men. It’s exciting that even though Kaling came onto the scene as the only one, she’ll leave with contemporaries ready to continue the work she started in diversifying depictions of Indians on western screens. (Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra, for example, is moving into the third season of her ABC show, Quantico, and is executive producing a new show at the network.)

Meanwhile, a giant congratulations is due to Mindy Lahiri, the fictional doctor in way-too-colorful scrubs who wants nothing more than a sweeping score (and, fine, a huge rock) to mark her happy ending; over the past five years she has helped to usher in stories about one of television’s most neglected audiences. She showed people that Meg Ryan isn’t the only one who gets to have meet-cutes, and that the funny brown girl who loves donuts is worthy of all kinds of romance. She introduced the American public to a new kind of girl next door. Finally.

Catherine Young is a freelance writer from Trinidad and Tobago. She believes cake is better than pie, leggings are pants, and Magic Mike XXL is a slept-on classic. If she ever writes her memoirs, they will be called “Sometimes I Sleep On The Floor.” Read more of her writing on her website, or say hello on Twitter.

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  • rolaroid

    There is nothing wrong with constantly eating — Mindy Lahiri is a hero! 😉

  • spicyearlgrey

    can i hear a FUCK YEA for south asians??

  • fortinbras

    Nice article, but I’d just like to point out that Kumail Nanjiani is Pakistani, not Indian.

    • Haley Nahman

      Thank you for this — we’ve corrected!

  • Anni

    If anyone is in LA – I highly, highly recommend you check out the Paley Centre where they currently have a small archive of iconic Mindy Project looks up on display. Entry is free, donation suggested so it’s doable on any budget!

    • I wish I was in town to see this! I feel like Mindy’s wardrobe often gets treated like a joke on the show in that she wear loud colours and large patterns like a child. But if I’m honest I would happily wear a smooth 80% of her wardrobe on the show.

      • SOO DHOWOW

        I always thought “gimme all of those outfits please!”

    • gracesface

      thank you for reminding me to visit the Paley Centre when I head to LA again!

  • Babs

    Love this tribute! Also more WOC writers please!!

    • Yes please!

      • Lizelle Galaz

        Pretty please!

    • Halah Flynn

      Would love to see more perspectives from women of color as well!

    • Amelia Diamond

      Yes, I promise you will see more, increasingly and consistently so, over the next few months

      • Babs

        great!

  • Cristina

    I love Mindy. While I didn’t find her books as entertaining as her show, as a whole she is awesome. I remember reading an interview talking about her weight and she was annoyed that people thought it was easy to stay chubby and that she had to work really hard, as if she could magically lose weight etc. I was just touched by that, because body types are all shapes and sizes, and some of us have to work really hard to maintain what most people call :chubby”.

  • I’m a Mindy (Kaling and Project) fan, but I think saying that the show paved the way for “Master of None” and “The Big Sick” is a bit of a stretch. I think “Mindy Project” shares more DNA with something like “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” and has done more for the complex, not surface-level likable female protagonist driven show.

    • Lee

      Super excited to see this as a topic on MR, and being written by a WOC! But this analysis is way too surface and on the nose. Also completely agree that “Mindy Project” did not pave the way for “Master of None” or “The Big Sick.” The only legitimate similarities between each show is that the lead is an Indian and romance is a part of their lives. It’s essentially like saying “Louie” owes a debt of gratitude to “Friends.”

    • Babs

      I do think the ties (or lack of) could have been made more elegantly, but IMO, this was the point: “It’s exciting that they exist at the same time in the same television landscape: there’s more than one way to exist on television as an Indian-American.”

      • Lee

        True… but I think that’s obvious.

  • Arden

    Can we also do a quick shout out to Ugly Betty for having a WOC lead (and a pretty diverse cast) back in 2006? (they also had a white leading male/romantic interest problem, but still)

    • fortinbras

      I seriously loved (and still love) Ugly Betty. Not only the cast, but the plot as well. I’m glad they never gave Betty a makeover and that she stayed ‘ugly’ the whole time.

  • pamb

    I stopped watched when Danny sabotaged Mindy’s chance at going to Stanford because he didn’t think she was serious. OUT! That, and Adam Pally taking over the show at the expense of the British doctor whose name I can’t remember (it’s been a few years).

  • Um, exsqueeze me? Mindy is a delightful, dainty woman of colour with no flaws. How dare you say she dresses like a toddler.

    • ihaveacooch

      she does tho lol

  • B4B

    I actually loved the fact that the first few seasons of the Mindy Project did NOT address race. It made it possible for there to be a show that was wildly popular and just happened to star an Indian woman in the lead. So often shows are sensationalised as flag bearers for racial equality, but I think the true hurdle is for those shows not to be viewed as uncommon, and not to be pigeon holed as South Asian American shows, or African American centric shows. They should just be American shows, categorised merely as romcoms, or dramas, etc like the rest. Of course culture, especially hollywood culture has a long way to go for this, but that should be the ultimate aim imo. When you can watch a movie with every single race, in non race specific roles (ie Indians as doctors) and not think twice about it. Shout out to Mindy, Aziz, and Hasan, all of whom have provided role models in cinema that I didn’t have growing up, showing South Asian kids of gen Z that acting isn’t just a pipe dream for them.