What can brown do for you?

How ‘The Mindy Project’ finally got in touch with Indian culture

Hulu

After 84 episodes of The Mindy Project, after countless romantic endeavors, two engagements, and a baby, Mindy Lahiri (Mindy Kaling) finally goes on a date with a man who isn’t white. In fact, he’s actually Indian, the same race as Mindy. Unfortunately, their romance doesn’t last very long—he calls it off before the opening credits of this week’s episode, upon realizing that Mindy is a “coconut”: brown on the outside, white on the inside.

Though it’s a bummer that we still haven’t seen Mindy actually seal the deal with a love interest of color (COME ON, JUST ONE PLS), this episode nevertheless accomplished something big: It finally allowed Lahiri to explore her Indian heritage, an aspect of her identity that has previously been subject to dismissal on the show.

When it comes to the Hulu series’ (the first three seasons aired on Fox) lack of diverse love interests, creator and star Mindy Kaling has rejected that critique, asking if “people really wonder on other shows if female leads are dating multicultural people.” (Yes, we do.) This reluctance to address race has seemingly informed not just the homogeneity of Mindy Lahiri’s dates, but the depiction of the main character herself.

Throughout the show’s run, Lahiri’s heritage has been treated as a prop. This may be an attempt to neutralize the otherness of her character and keep her on par with her white coworkers and friends, artificially creating a level playing field. As E. Alex Jung wrote about The Mindy Project for Al Jazeera, “Race is ornamental, like a Kate Spade purse.” This, unfortunately, ignores the social realities of dating as an Indian woman (let alone all the other realities of being one) in America, which is both out of touch and just kind of weird.

In a previous episode this season (”Jody Kimball-Kinney Is My Husband”), Mindy heavily advertises her Indian heritage for the express purpose of getting ahead—she dons a couple of extravagant saris (and some top-notch jewelry) in hopes of parlaying her minority status into a spot for her son Leo at a prestigious preschool.

But Tuesday night’s episode, “Bernardo & Anita” (a nod to West Side Story), was different. Mindy admits she doesn’t have any Indian friends and declares that “immigrants are supposed to assimilate,” assuming that assimilation requires totally eschewing the culture of the motherland. As a counterpoint, Neel explains to Mindy that his heritage plays an important role in his life, from joining an Indian fraternity in college to regularly going to temple. The juxtaposition of these two people demonstrates that “Indianness” is much more complicated than a monolithic identity.

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When Mindy asks her white Southern gentleman coworker Jody whether he sees her as Indian, he informs her that he actually sees her as a white man due to her sense of entitlement (it’s a compliment). This seems like a direct reference to an interview Kaling herself gave recently to Fusion’s Alicia Menendez, in which she described her character as having “the confidence of a white man.” But for all its benefits, this white-man confidence has become a hurdle to overcome in order to embrace Lahiri’s brownness.

When Mindy is invited by Neel to a dinner party with a bunch of his Indian-American friends, Mindy gets inspired to have a Mundan ceremony (a Hindu tradition in which a baby’s head is shaved, typically after its first birthday) for Leo. Mindy gets caught in a common, frustrating situation for the kids of immigrants: wanting to feel connected to your family’s culture, but not fully understanding it, and then having to explain it to white people. It’s frustrating, a little depressing, and it gave Mindy the relatable cultural depth that we’ve been waiting on for four seasons.

In true Mindy Project fashion, the ceremony is a disaster. Baby Leo won’t stop crying and Mindy’s white coworkers express their deep discomfort with the ceremony (naturally, the Indian guests are unfazed). Eventually, Mindy’s parents calm her down and explain that Leo’s crying is indeed normal, but more importantly, that she shouldn’t blame herself for not being in touch with Indian culture, because that’s just how they raised her. This is either a touching moment that explores the very real pressure immigrant parents have faced in assimilating into American culture, or a great way to pass the buck on why this side of Mindy wasn’t addressed earlier in the show—or maybe it’s both.

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To think, all it took was a baby. Leo has marked an interesting turning point for the show in more ways than one. As an extension of Mindy herself, it’s Leo who has prompted his mother to establish a stronger bond with her own heritage.

Of course, no one would argue that Mindy Lahiri must be a character who goes to the temple every week or watches Bollywood movies or feels pressure from her mother to marry a “nice Indian boy” or in any way flaunts her Indianness solely to prove that she’s Indian. Many South Asians don’t wear their heritage on their sleeves or talk about it constantly, and Mindy Kaling has certainly pushed back on these expectations, perhaps in part to escape the negative, stereotypical representations of South Asians that have pervaded the media for decades.

But by simply acknowledging and interacting with her Indianness in a meaningful way, the show has brought new life to this character, making her deeper and far, far more real. Lahiri’s cultural identity is no longer an omission, but an informed decision.

The episode wasn’t perfect—Mindy has yet to romantically interact with a minority love interest (she and Neel end up just friends, nothing more), unless you count her vibrating seat cushion with Oscar Isaac’s face on it. Then again, The Mindy Project is very clearly NOT in the business of perfection, seeing as it highlights the every day blunders of, um, living. Tuesday night’s episode was certainly a baby Leo-sized step in the right direction.