Yes, we’re here again, but with good reason.
Recently, The Mindy Project aired an episode where Mindy Lahiri goes off to Stanford to start a fellowship — and meets Neepa, an Indian immigrant. The show makes a punchline out of how unlike Neepa Mindy is: Neepa’s wearing a salwar! What. She’s married! LOL. She has a child and a husband in a respectable profession! OMFG. She has a thick accent and conservative values! No way.
Neepa is the 1990s interpretation of desi identity in pop culture. Mindy, with her winky asides of wanting to be blonde and ability to riff openly about sexuality, is supposed to be the millennial-friendly interpretation of desi identity in pop culture. Mindy doesn’t even speak “any Indian languages!” Girl, just say it: Gujarati, Bengali, Hindi, Tamil, Telugu — whatever. Anyway, to explore this problematic episode of The Mindy Project, we convened a round-table at The Aerogram — featuring Rohin, Anita, and Pavani sounding off on the interplay of desi identity between Mindy and Neepa.
Rohin: I mean, I’m not sure where to start? This episode opens on Mindy being “girly” and “cute” and evoking Elle Woods’ first days of Harvard Law. What do you guys take away from this?
Anita: I think it was one of several episodes where Mindy’s age and character were executed badly. Elle Woods was a sympathetic character in Legally Blonde, and in her evocation of Elle, Mindy clearly wants us to see her as an Elle. I can buy an experienced 30something Ob-gyn in a fellowship for the top Ob-gyns being ditzy, but not acting as unprofessional as Mindy in this episode. But you know, if this were a meta-show with Mindy Lahiri as a writer in an all-male writer’s room or an actress on the set of a PBS-type show, I think the classroom scene absolutely would work.
I loved what Mindy Kaling said about Mindy Lahiri (that she’s a bigot/basketcase — essentially a female Michael from The Office), but if that was meant seriously, I question her execution of that vision. This is one of a lot of episodes where the writer’s intent is clearly for Mindy to be a “heroine” of a traditional rom-com, not an antiheroine.
Pavani: I took away that Mindy Kaling is a big fan of Reese Witherspoon and her early-2000s film work. In addition to Kaling’s sitcom homage to the pink-outfitted Elle, an earlier episode this season revealed a #WreathWitherspoon in Mindy Lahiri’s personalized holiday decor.
— People magazine (@peoplemag) December 24, 2014
The “cute” and “girly” aspects of Lahiri’s style are an exaggerated sense of Kaling’s own personality from what I can tell. Not unlike how Lahiri’s fashion sense is informed by Kaling’s own style choices. The sharp eyes over at The Mindy Project Style noticed, for example, that in perhaps her most Elle-like moment in this episode, Lahiri is wearing accessories from Kaling’s recent awards show appearance. RG: Enter Neepa. AF: The oddest thing about this initial meeting for me was that Neepa, an Indian from India, just starts off assuming she knows which language Mindy might speak. Growing up next to Stanford with desi immigrants and visiting students — and living here still — no desi stranger in Silicon Valley in 30 years has ever assumed they should speak to me in another language right off the bat. RG: On several occasions, strangers have, like, approached me on the street and correctly assumed I speak Bengali. The Mindy Project doesn’t really have the palette for that kind of cultural nuance, though. AF: Some strangers figure I’m Madrasi. But even the Madrasi guys at the liquor station and gas station in my neighborhood asked me — they didn’t launch in, and part of that is because just as they can read where I might be from, they can read the cultural cues in my appearance that I’m “Americanized.”
PY: Having grown up near LA, I couldn’t help but notice that “Stanford” in this episode looks like UCLA’s campus. For me, it’s another reminder that the show is a sitcom and — whether for comic shorthand, or maybe budget/time constraint reasons — it engages in some overly broad strokes when it paints a picture of anything, whether it’s regions in California or kinds of desis. RG: Kind of how they portray NYC — with their inaccurate representations of the subway. PY: Also, when it comes to how they interact in this episode, I didn’t get that feel that Neepa was portrayed as a 90s desi pop culture desi and Mindy as a millenial-friendly desi so much as I got the feel of first generation vs. second-generation or even US-born/raised vs. immigrant. RG: I guess I know there are men and women in India who are very hip and could probably out-hip me, quite honestly — and that’s where the idea of Neepa didn’t work for me. Right away, I get this impression that the writers are trying very hard to get us to sympathize with Mindy — and they’re trying equally hard to get us to other Neepa. AF: They other Neepa really hard. The whole episode centered around Mindy trying to show how not-like-Neepa she was, and by extension, how not stereotypically desi by making the claim she’s not wearing underwear to a room full of doctors. RG: I actually like Neepa because her characterization feels more organic than Mindy’s! AF: I didn’t dislike Neepa or anything — I just think she wasn’t remotely real. She functioned as a foil. Mindy’s lines do get at something that I think rings true — the embarrassing effort some teenage or early twentysomething desis, including the much-younger version of me, have made to distance themselves from someone who wants to make assumptions about their level of desi-ness. As E. Alex Jung points out for AlJazeera, Mindy seems ahistorical. Her parents still haven’t appeared, and so how she characterizes Neepa, seems particularly important to how we’re supposed to read the show as a whole. What did you guys think about Neepa’s claim at the fast food drive-through: “All you spoiled second generations think about are sex positions and nail art.” I assume this was supposed to be funny, but it didn’t even have the ring of truth you need to pull off a line like that. Thoughts? PY: In interviews, Kaling has mentioned that she likes nail art, so to me it came off partly as poking fun at herself. Also, Mindy might not know whatever language Neepa spoke to her earlier in the episode, but her comeback about Neepa’s son Neal shows that she does know what’s important to immigrant desi parents and what concerns might be foremost for them. “You know what? You think I’m a spoiled second generation? Well guess what honey, Neal’s gonna be an outdoor pool DJ in Vegas!” I like the character of Neepa too because 1) I’d like to see more of the actress who plays her (Gita Reddy) and 2) see more desi interactions during the series’ Stanford detour. They seem to be lab partners, so if their quick chats move beyond the topics of Tom Brady, Danny and Neal they might even pass the Bechdel test in a future episode. RG: Maybe it’s the writing in the episode — that they feel they have to work to remind us that Mindy is edgy and Neepa is so puritanical. I don’t find her outbursts so endearing anymore.
In 2004 Mindy Lahiri wore color contacts. She asked for “Alexis Bledel blue”. #themindyproject A photo posted by Mindy Kaling (@mindykaling) on
AF: Rohin, you mentioned on Twitter that you think Mindy Lahiri is self-loathing.
RG: I do! I get The Bluest Eye-vibes from Lahiri in this episode.
AF: Me, too. It bugs me because (1) I feel like this gets at something real, but it’s like Mindy Kaling hasn’t thought through Mindy Lahiri’s character. The character is way, way too old to want to be blonde and (2) too many little brown girls are going to see this and think they should feel self-loathing. Mindy seems earnest when she does this schtick and there’s nothing around her that marks the ridiculousness of her remarks, and nothing in her delivery to suggest a funny self-awareness. When Michael Scott said stupid stuff, he was surrounded by straight men (in the first season, even Kelly Kapur served as a straight man to his buffoonery) that put his clueless-striver behavior into relief. What do you guys think?
PY: I think the references to wanting to be blonde are weird, and they’re not that funny.
RG: It makes me feel weird — because her saying she wishes she were blonde…is almost like her saying she wishes she were white.
PY: I mean, if she’s being literal, it’s just a hair color and Lahiri is someone who has a history of making dramatic changes like chopping off her hair at the end of the first season, so go for it and go blonde already. And if it’s not literal but aspiring to be someone who looks just like Elle, then that is a definite mismatch with who Mindy Lahiri is otherwise — a confident, skilled professional who’s not afraid to stand out, take risks and be different.
Maybe the earnest aspiring to blondeness is something Lahiri will work her way through on the way to self-realization throughout the series?
RG: I saw the promise of that kind of plot development in season 1 — but now we’re three years in — and Mindy hasn’t really grown as a character at all. That unironic aspiring to blondeness, in a character like Mindy Lahiri, is kind of terrifying.
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