‘Indian Accents’ grow stronger on television

The Mindy Project has been renewed for a second season for the Fall 2013 television lineup and is cause for celebration because roles for South Asian and Indian American women have been less consistent and visible than their male counterparts especially in situation comedies.  The Fox Network features two central Indian American women characters in back to back shows; Mindy Kaling as Dr. Mindy Lahiri, an OB/GYN physician, who is the title character of the show and Hannah Simone as Cece Parek, a model who is the best friend of the main character, Jess (Zooey Deschanel), in New Girl.  Not only do the shows highlight alternative representations of ethnic and cultural minorities but the programs also create opportunities to discuss how television portrays inter-racial interactions in the post-racial era.”

In its sophomore season, New Girl has created a diverse world for Jess and her friends that includes blacks, Asians, and multiracial characters as well as ethnic white characters. In episodes, characters constantly reference being “brown,” or “black,” or being true to your community whether it be Jewish or Indian. The show acknowledges that racial and cultural difference as a part of everyday reality and vocabulary.  The show is a response to the criticisms leveled at Friends or How I Met Your Mother because it wants to include a diverse population.  However, as I discuss in Indian Accents: Brown Voice and Racial Performance in American Television and Film, what happens in many comedies is that ethnic and racial identity is the focus of humor rather than as an incidental part of one’s life.  Much of the second season of New Girl focused on Cece’s desire to marry an Indian man and her foray into the world of arranged marriage.  For example, the episode “Table 34,” is about the Cece’s visit to an arranged marriage convention that is a formal set up for Indians interested in long term relationships to meet other Indians.  The dialogue is punchy and smart with references to colonialism, and cultural identity.  However, the show does not offer compelling insights about Indian culture or any other Indian characters but instead parades out familiar stereotypes of model minority Indians who are obsessed with advanced educational degrees. The convention becomes “the Indian landscape” or the exotic backdrop to Jess and Nick (Jake Johnson) and Cece and Schmidt’s (Max Greenfield) relationships.

When Cece says (at the end of the episode) that she still wants a brown husband it seems more like a commodity or accessory for her rather than something real that is developing or re-developing with Schmidt.  Thus it is no surprise that Cece and her Indian fiancée decide not to go through with their Indian wedding ceremony.  Instead it becomes another colorful landscape (complete with Indian costumes and the ceremonial horse) for Nick and Jess and Cece and Schmidt to admit their true feelings for each other.

I previously discussed how vocal accents can racialize Indians as foreigners but in the absence of a vocal difference, Indian accents also operate by contrasting difference with normative narratives.   In the series, the marriage rituals and customs Cece has tried to incorporate into her life fall flat because they do not match her lifestyle or hopes for a relationship.  The arranged marriage route is depicted as an extreme reaction to her desire for a long-term relationship.  What makes the show go beyond previous narratives is that Cece is a likable character who is just as disappointed in love regardless of her Indian heritage.

In The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling is not the best friend but the first South Asian American and Indian American female headliner of her own network television show. The series features a strong cast of supporting actors as well as guest appearances by SNL (Saturday Night Live) cast and Kaling’s former co-stars from The Office. Mindy Kaling commented at Paleyfest 2013 that on her show, she does not “rely on or deny it [being Indian].” Kaling’s character does not talk about being Indian and instead acts as if being Indian is natural and part of her everyday life rather than emphasizing significant cultural traits.  Thus the humor of the show is situational and focused on Mindy’s romantic escapades rather than based on ethnic or cultural visual or vocal gags.  Her character is a professional woman more akin to comedians Mary Tyler Moore and Tina Fey (as Liz Lemon in 30 Rock) and her show and her character propel Kaling into a new category where her Indian-ness is not an exotic accent in a script but instead part of an everyday American narrative linked to working women comedies and television history.

Her miscues with dating and romance make her lovable and form the basis of the series but the first season also has comic moments that reference healthcare, race, and religion, and family.  IMDB and other online sites reviews tend to break down into two categories: first, the character’s single status and her attractive-ness (is she “hot?”) on the show and, second, Mindy’s presence as the only character of color on the show (where are the other Indians or people of color?)  But as the season progressed, the ensemble of supporting characters in the show (including some episodes with her Indian brother) plus the ability of Kaling to play earnest, smart, and self-interested with comic and endearing moments created a solid following, especially with the blooming Mindy/Danny relationship that will take us into the second season.

In The Mindy Project, the hope is that Kaling will continue to clear the way for women of color on television that break out of sexual objects and exotic sidekicks that are the norm and showcase Indian Americans and Asian Americans in a variety of roles in American culture.

Photo: Actress Mindy Kaling.  Photo Credit Kristin Dos Santos.


Shilpa S. Davé is an Assistant Dean, College of Arts and Sciences, and assistant professor of Media Studies and American Studies at University of Virginia and the coeditor of East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture.

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