Mindy Kaling was just 24 when she was picked up to star in and write for The Office. An Emmy nomination later, she is being hailed as the next Tina Fey and is about to hit the UK with her new hospital sitcom.
Vera Chokalingam was conceived in Nigeria, where her Indian parents Avu, an architect, and Swati, a gynaecologist, were living at the time. If this sounds unlike the beginnings of an American comedy origins story, hang on a moment: Avu and Swati, planning to move to the US, nicknamed their unborn daughter after the female half of Mork & Mindy, one of the few American shows on Nigerian television. Several months later, in June 1979, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Vera – otherwise known as Mindy Kaling – came into the world.
Now, with her own titular sitcom, The Mindy Project, nearing the end of its first season on US TV, Kaling has fulfilled the destiny inherent in her nickname. She writes, directs, produces and plays Dr Mindy Lahiri, who, like Swati, is an obstetrician- gynaecologist. She also, she says, inherited her immigrant mother's work ethic and tolerance for long hours, thanks to which she is one of very few Indian-Americans playing a lead role in a American show, and one of even fewer to also be a show-runner.
During the 1990s, the most prominent Indian face on US TV was that of Apu, the stereotypical Indian store-owner of The Simpsons (voiced by a white American actor, Hank Azaria). In the past decade, however, the second-generation children of those who arrived in the US following changes to immigration law in 1965 have made their presence felt in shows such as Lost, Heroes and The Big Bang Theory. Parks and Recreation star Aziz Ansari is perhaps Kaling's most prominent male counterpart. As The Mindy Project premiered in the autumn, comedian Hari Kondabolu appeared on stand-up show Totally Biased to celebrate its landmark status. "We've had an amazing run the last few years with more Indians in the public eye than ever before," he said. "There's, like, 14 of us now…"
Kaling's show occasionally draws attention to her ethnicity for comic purposes. (When a car almost runs her character down during a drunken bike ride, for example, she yells at the driver, "Racist!") Her profession is no accident either. Some of the other best-known Indian-American TV actors have also found themselves playing medics. Parminder Nagra (who is British, but Los Angeles based) played Dr Neela Rasgotra for six seasons on ER, while Kal Penn played Dr Lawrence Kutner on House. Penn too is the child of South Asian medical professionals who arrived in the US in the Sixties. But Kaling's immigrant heritage is largely incidental, and in that respect the show represents progress. In essence, it's a straightforward romantic comedy about a thirtysomething's sexual travails, with just a sprinkling of hospital procedural.
"I never want to be called the funniest Indian female comedian that exists," Kaling recently told New York magazine. "I feel like I can go head-to-head with the best white, male comedy writers that are out there. Why would I want to self- categorise myself into a smaller group than I'm able to compete in?"
Kaling has already gone head-to-head with the best, as a writer, producer and actor on the acclaimed US remake of The Office. Her character, airheaded customer service rep Kelly Kapoor, was a minor role, but Kaling was a major presence in the writers' room, and was nominated for an Emmy Award for a 2009 episode that she co-wrote. She was only 24 when she was hired by the show's creator Greg Daniels, and had no experience writing for television. But she knew she was funny.
"I'm not good at anything except writing jokes," she said. "I wasn't good at sports, I wasn't good at anything artsy, ever. I think there was a real worry for a while about what I would be good at. I was just this chubby little Indian kid who looked like a nerd … It wasn't until I was in high school that I was like, 'I guess I like writing dialogue.' So that's how I got into it. And I loved Saturday Night Live."
After graduating from the Ivy League Dartmouth College in 2001, Kaling moved with her best friend Brenda Withers to New York, where, two years later, the pair wrote and performed in the hit play Matt & Ben. The off-Broadway production, which was praised by Time magazine and The New Yorker, was a heavily fictionalised portrayal of the writing of the Oscar-winning screenplay Good Will Hunting, by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, in which the script (literally) fell from the sky. Kaling played Affleck, completing the miraculous transformation into a six-foot-two, lantern-jawed Boston man by… wearing a tracksuit. Daniels saw the play, and decided to give her a job.
The Office led to movie work and, like Ansari, Kaling has become a peripheral player in the Judd Apatow comedy stable. In 2005 she had a cameo in Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin; she recently appeared in The Five-Year Engagement with Jason Segel; and she is part of the star-studded cast of Seth Rogen's upcoming directorial debut, This Is the End.
Daniels' writers' room was also where Kaling met her close friend, co-writer and on-again, off-again beau, B J Novak. Both were 24 when they joined The Office, "and kind of fell in love through doing that", Kaling says, "and then dated on and off for a couple of years, and now we are just, like, best friends." Novak is a consulting producer on The Mindy Project, and makes an appearance on screen as a Latin professor whom Dr Lahiri briefly dates.
The Mindy Project struggled at first to attract a large US audience, though it has proven sufficiently popular among women under 35 to warrant its renewal for a second season. It even performed a somewhat drastic mid-season cast reshuffle, cutting surplus characters such as Mindy's mentor, Dr Shulman (the estimable Stephen Tobolowsky), in an attempt to hone its appeal. British audiences will get their chance to decide whether it works when the series begins on E4 later this month.
Kaling's show has been compared to New Girl, not least because it follows on from Zooey Deschanel's series on Fox TV's Tuesday schedule of post-Bridesmaids single-gal sitcoms. And Kaling has been compared to Tina Fey, the star and creator of the late lamented 30 Rock, not least by herself. In the introduction to her bestselling 2011 book of essays and personal observations, Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, Kaling anticipated comparisons with Fey's Bossypants, and apologised for her failure to live up to those high expectations.
"What I'm proud of about my book is that I'm giving a lot of opinions, but I don't give any advice," she told The Huffington Post. "I'm 31 and I'm not married and having kids. I'm five-foot-three. I weigh, like, 150 pounds and I'm not in this position to be telling people how to live."
That's not strictly true. The book opens with a piece of advice, albeit tongue-in-cheek. "Sometimes teenage girls ask me for advice about what they should be doing if they want a career like mine one day," Kaling writes. "There are basically two ways to get where I am: (1) learn a provocative dance and put it on YouTube; (2) convince your parents to move to Orlando and home-school you until you get cast on a kids' show, or do what I did, which is (3) stay in school and be a respectful and hardworking wallﬂower, and go to an accredited non-online university."
After the book was extracted in The New Yorker – as Fey's had been previously – Salman Rushdie sent Kaling a tweet to congratulate her. To Rushdie, that celebrated chronicler of the South Asian immigrant experience, Kaling replied with a romcom reference: "It goes without saying, I loved your cameo in the Bridget Jones movie."
'The Mindy Project' starts on 28 March on E4