“The Mindy Project” became the first American TV show created by and starring an Indian-American when it premiered in 2012 on FOX before moving to Hulu in 2015. Mindy Kaling broke all kinds of norms then and she’s doing it now, even when the comedy has come to an end after six successful seasons.
If you read the quick summary of the show, it says “the series stars Mindy Kaling as Mindy Lahiri, a young OB/GYN, as she navigates through her professional life and romantic relationships.” You could easily replace Mindy Kaling with a Jennifer Aniston, and Mindy Lahiri with any Jane Doe-like name.
Instead, Kaling created a platform for brown people who could finally point to her character, Mindy Lahiri, for reference and representation, hopefully erasing the mistakes of Apu. Why? Because she wasn’t a one-dimensional stereotype. She wasn’t just a doctor. She was a successful, smart, independent, food-loving, slightly ditzy, fashion loving, pop culture obsessed OB-GYN. With her character, Mindy Kaling proved that South Asians could, in fact, be bankable leads.
Her performance was perfectly quirky and hilarious and heart-warming but the thing with Mindy Lahiri is that she certainly doesn’t exactly represent South Asian-American diaspora. That’s a humongous, daunting, and seemingly impossible task to take on. So, yes, Mindy Lahiri is flawed much like all of us. She’s relatable and not just to one set of the audience but to everybody who’s watching.
Of course, this doesn’t take away from the many actors who paved way for Kaling’s success. Archie Panjabi, Kunal Nayyar, Danny Pudi, Kal Penn, Parvesh Cheena and more have been in the industry for a long time now. Kaling herself played Kelly Kapoor on “The Office,” a show she also wrote and directed for, for eight seasons. She often says that her character from the long-running NBC comedy was almost an exaggeration of her real personality. If you dive deep, there are some notable similarities between Kelly Kapoor and Mindy Lahiri.
However, it was Mindy Lahiri who had to shoulder the responsibility of being the first South Asian-American protagonist. As she herself says in the series finale, “Upon being confronted with the biggest challenge of her professional life, could our plucky heroine beat the odds one more time?” Over the years, the character sometimes met with a lot of flak for being either just too dense (how could such a smart doctor sometimes be such an airhead?), for not being desi enough (does she never mingle with fellow South Asians), for only dating white men. The last one especially stuck. Besides her burgeoning career, the biggest focus of “The Mindy Project” was Mindy’s search for the perfect man.
Kaling’s love for romantic comedies is well-documented in the show, as witnessed by the many romances of Mindy Lahiri. They are usually portrayed by white men, yes. It was the main critique of Kaling as a desi woman. Instead, Mindy chose to be with Danny Castellano (Chris Messina).
Mindy and Danny become the crux of “The Mindy Project,” the couple with steamy chemistry that everyone rooted for despite their differences. Mindy was the optimistic, cheery Indian lady and Danny was the grumpy but sweet Italian man. While many complained about the lack of an all-out South Asian relationship, I was excited because the show was embracing Mindy being in a wholesome bi-racial relationship.
It went a notch further when she did the desi version of unthinkable: an unplanned pregnancy without being married! Let’s face it, it’s a taboo topic in most South Asian families, no matter where in the world you live. It led to us meeting Mindy’s parents, Tarun and Sonu, played with excellency by Ajay Mehta and Sakina Jaffrey, in season 4. Utkarsh Ambudkar has been playing her younger brother Rishi since the first season. Together, they form a very funny, very adorable family of Indian-Americans, another rarity for television.
Mindy’s emotional journey is not that of your typical heroine. Serial dating, almost marrying an Italian, a son out of wedlock, definitely marrying an American (even if it was for a short time) and then divorcing him. Her career kept growing beyond the practice she worked at. She did a fellowship at Stanford University, she started her own fertility clinic. She’s badass in different ways. Especially because she’s a woman of color but also because she’s a woman in whom everyone can see bits of themselves.
That’s the lesson we need to walk away with.
“The Mindy Project” might not have met with critical acclaim all the time but it did it’s job well: to make viewers laugh and enjoy all the comedic drama unfolding before them. This applies to Mindy Kaling, Messina, and the rest of the cast, especially Ike Barinholtz, Edward Weeks, Xosha Roquemore. They made a wacky ensemble who kept coming at us with one-liners that would make anyone literally laugh out loud. It’s humor we’ll definitely miss.
In six seasons, the show also garnered a long list of cameos from some A-listers including Freida Pinto, Reese Witherspoon, Stephen Colbert, Laura Dern, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Chloe Sevigny, Laverne Cox, Common, James Franco, Julia Stiles, Seth Rogen and so many more. Whew. That’s a good number of celebrities to have on your show, we think.
It’s normal for an Indian-American audience to search for our culture in a show where an Indian-American is playing the lead. It makes us hopeful. “The Mindy Project” flickers in this regard. The season 4 episode “Bernardo & Anita” is perhaps the best (and one of the very, very few examples) for how the show handled it. In the installment, Mindy is on a date with Neel, a man who makes her realize she doesn’t really have any South Asian friends. He calls her a coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside.
She asks Rishi if they’re both Indian-ish to which he says no because he thinks he’s black on the inside and she thinks she’s white. To prove her love for her heritage, she holds a Hindu ceremony for her son Leo and invites Neel and his friends. Throughout the ceremony, which includes a priest chanting mantras and a holy fire, both Mindy and Leo are uncomfortable and unaware of what’s happening. Finally, her mother is the one who convinces her that she is “Indian-enough” because she’s always taken care of her family.
Kaling never really used the show’s narrative to feature a ton of South Asian culture. Was it an opportunity that she didn’t take advantage of? Maybe. Was it what she promised her show would be? Nope. “The Mindy Project” gave us six seasons of a fiery Indian chic leaving her mark on the television industry. I’m good with it.
Lots of people end up comparing this show with Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None.” The theme of the award-winning Netflix comedy is invariably different from “The Mindy Project.” It’s purpose is to explore the life of second generation Asian immigrants through Dev Shah (Ansari). However, we see two shows with South Asian leads so we begin to draw conclusions. Even “Master of None” has been criticised because Dev usually dates white women and rarely women of color, much in the same way Mindy Kaling is criticised for how her character dates mainly caucasian men.
I’m just happy we have two big shows that represent us. This doesn’t even include shows that now prominently feature South Asians and don’t limit them to typecasted roles. “The Good Place,” “Quantico,” “Sense8,” “Designated Survivor” are a few. And for this, we have to give credit to Kaling and her struggle to achieve everything she has.
It’s even taken her places because Mindy Kaling will next be seen in two big Hollywood ventures, “Ocean’s Eight” and “A Wrinkle in Time.” Plus, she’s pregnant IRL! She’ll be recurring in the TV comedy “Champions,” which she’s also producing. “The Mindy Project” may have ended but our time with Kaling is only just beginning.
Saloni Gajjar is a recent alum of NYU’s Magazine Writing Program. Her passion lies in pop culture writing, as is evident in her work with magazines like Marie Claire, Interview, and Complex. Her goal is to show the arts as a medium and mirror of the society, much beyond just entertainment.
In July 2022, Sania Khan’s life was ruthlessly taken from her by her ex-husband. Sania was a young, vibrant South Asian woman – a creator and photographer who had the courage to step out of an abusive marriage, even in the face of community norms that discourage women from speaking out. While this tragedy seemed to stir a consciousness in the South Asian diaspora that we can no longer justify the status quo, it is far from the only such incident. Just months later in December of 2022, Harpreet Kaur Gill was stabbed to death by her husband in Vancouver. While the most extreme cases like those of Sania Khan and Harpreet Kaur Gill are highlighted by mainstream media, a small body of research provides evidence that intimate partner violence experiences are equally, if not more, prevalent in South Asian communities than the general population in the US or Canada. That’s why we need to do more as a community and throw light South Asians and intimate partner violence.
Despite the identification and investigation of these norms in South Asia, there’s so much we still don’t know about diaspora communities, especially in relation to South Asians and intimate partner violence. In the US, South Asians have become one of the fastest-growing populations, but we remain unaware of how the stresses of raising a family in a different culture, and the weight of growing up between two worlds, affect these norms, expectations, and experiences among South Asian immigrants, the second generation and beyond.
In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at how these norms are enacted to influence intimate relationship dynamics, discuss the recent rise in intimate partner violence, and explore the work that researchers, policymakers, and program implementers can do to address violence in South Asian diaspora communities.
Social Norms and Violence in South Asian Diaspora Communities
Why does it take catastrophic events to serve as a call to action? For one, the “model minority myth” continues to portray South Asians in America (who originate from Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, the Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka) as a healthy and wealthy group. As a child of Indian immigrants, I always thought this was just a frustrating trope that lived rent-free in my head next to the eternal question, “Log kya kahenge?” (What will people say?) However, I have realized that this constant worry is not just an innocent preoccupation. It’s the result of a dangerous spiral beginning with the portrayal of South Asians as a model minority and the need to maintain that well-to-do image. This only reinforces the traditional gender norms that overlook men’s perpetration of violence and encourage women’s silence, crippling any efforts to understand the scope of the problem and draw attention and resources to address it.
The Impacts of COVID-19 on Intimate Partner Violence
Prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the frequently-uttered phrase among researchers, practitioners, and advocates alike was “one in three” — one in three women ages 15-49 experiences physical and/or sexual violence inflicted by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Under the cover of the COVID-19 pandemic however, rates of violence against women rose dramatically, prompting UN Women to call for recognition of this “Shadow Pandemic.” During the height of the pandemic, the social isolation that came with lockdowns and quarantine procedures to curb the spread of disease made home a more dangerous place for an increasing number of women. As communities seek to rebuild, the inequities in access to and use of potentially lifesaving services have deepened. Now more than ever, it is critical that we shine a light on the many intersections of our society to prevent South Asian women’s experiences of intimate partner violence from being pushed even further into the shadows.
First and foremost, to better understand South Asians and intimate partner violence, we need better data disaggregated by racial/ethnic group. Since the 1980 Census, only those of Indian origin have had a fill-in bubble.All other South Asian groups have to write something in, decreasing their participation. South Asian communities in the US are not a monolith and they are certainly not all of Indian origin. This perception, fed by our lack of data, likely privileges the Indian community in America and limits the visibility of other South Asian communities.
More accurate information will help us better understand where the need is greatest. We can make a stronger case for more equitable resource allocation, improve South Asian language materials for survivors, and enhance provider training programs, accounting for the specific cultural implications of disclosing and seeking treatment for violence in South Asian communities. Public health researchers should increase efforts to understand the prevalence of experiences of violence, the environmental factors that make South Asian women in America vulnerable to experiences of intimate partner violence, and how it impacts their health.
While outstanding organizations such as Narika in California and Sakhi in New York are leading the charge in raising awareness, running active helplines, and providing support, they cannot be the sole safe space for survivors. While the system’s failure to protect Sania is not an isolated incident, it has served as a wake-up call.
All South Asian women in America should be able to be healthy and safe and lead lives free from violence, coercion, or abandonment. To achieve this, we need better data, more research, culturally-tailored resources, and appropriate legislative action that will allow for prevention, screening, and treatment efforts to finally take root.
Mental health in the South Asian community has long been stigmatized, and South Asian individuals who experience psychological issues might feel hesitant to express their concerns due to the shame they may encounter. Nevertheless, while there has been progress made in studying and openly discussing South Asian mental health, several topics remain in need of further examination; these include studying the relationship between mental health and gender, specifically the role of masculinity on mental health outcomes.
What is South Asian masculinity?
Masculinity and mental health have come under greater scrutiny by researchers, particularly as traditional masculinity is often cited as the reason why men are less willing to reach out for support regarding psychological issues. However, the influence of masculine norms on well-being has been insufficiently viewed through an intersectional lens and is understudied within South Asian mental health. From a South Asian context, traditional masculinity can include focusing on material success while displaying suppressed emotionality, which can be manifested through anger or practicing other harmful behaviors.
In order to understand its influence, it is critical to examine the impact of traditional paradigms of masculinity across the diaspora. For instance, some traits associated with traditional masculinity among South Asian men include displaying control over others. A Sri-Lanka-based study found that most male participants “associated manhood with dominance…” A Forbes India article asserted how boys in India are “taught to … apply themselves to the task of growing up to be a strong, unwavering support system for their families,” which in turn forces them to be silent about topics that may make them seem weak. This pattern of behavior becomes manifested in a particularly harmful way because boys grow up with the inability to handle their emotions or formulate healthy coping strategies during challenging circumstances.
These norms can have drastic implications and harm other community members. For instance, a focus group conducted among Nepali men found that failure to deliver for their household economically as breadwinners eventually resulted in heated disputes, which escalated and led them to engage in domestic violence. The presence of domestic violence can also be observed through media stories on the pervasiveness of gender-based harm within South Asian communities, as seen in the murder of Sania Khan.
Traditional masculinity also hides the wounds that South Asian men may be battling within themselves. One paper asserts that for a sizable number of Indian men, “…sadness and despair find a distorted manifestation in destructive behaviors that deny their emotional pain to themselves and to others.” Thus, performing conventionally masculine behaviors can mask deeper mental health issues.
Repercussions of South Asian masculinity on mental health
Because of the pressure to adhere to such strict standards of conduct, traditional masculinity has significant, greater repercussions for mental health and well-being. For instance, because of the narrow ability of men to compartmentalize their feelings, this restrictive emotionality can result in an inability for others to recognize their mental health issues, thus failing to target the deeper causes of men’s behavior. Furthermore, men themselves might engage in fewer help-seeking behaviors. This is also further complicated due to gaps in culturally competent services that can serve South Asian men when they do utilize support systems.
Additional social forces experienced by South Asian men might explain mental health outcomes, particularly when considering the role of immigration. Among South Asian American men in the United States, one study noted that “a lower social position” within their community was linked to higher distress, indicating how critical it was for first-generation men to be leaders and actively participate in their ethnic community’s organizations. Thus, social expectations of men within South Asian communities influenced their well-being, as did their social status and relative power.
What we can do to change the status quo on South Asian masculinity and mental health
In order to ensure that men in South Asian cultures can embrace their mental health, it is important to formulate a prudent, welcoming paradigm that encourages greater help-seeking behaviors. Greater attention to this topic can also contribute to theories on feminist and sociocultural therapeutic frameworks, which both offer the following includes suggested remedies:
Challenging gender stereotypes and encouraging mental health care as a means to discuss issues about well-being
It is imperative to encourage South Asian men to show more emotion, thus changing the existing narrative and social pressure they face to limit the expression of their feelings. Fortunately, there is a platform, known as @BrownManTherapy, that posts content about the struggles South Asian men experience. Furthermore, therapy ought to be recommended as a means to deal with mental health concerns, which should be combined with support from the community.
More South Asian male clinicians
In addition to instituting changes in community norms, there needs to be more diverse representation in the mental health field. In doing so, there will be greater platforms to have conversations about the negative repercussions of traditional masculinity that are unique to South Asian men. Furthermore, it is critical to challenge the social stigma that mental health is a female-dominated profession or that seeking therapy is emasculating.
More research studies examining cross-cultural differences in masculinity across South Asian cultures
The connection between masculinity and mental health ought to be investigated much further. Studies should particularly assess masculinity within non-white contexts in order to examine the standards of manhood across several communities and truly understand the unique stressors men face across different cultural backgrounds.
While the connection between South Asian masculinity and mental health is not discussed among psychology professionals, it is critical to study the association since it plays a role in South Asian gender inequities and in mental health behaviors among South Asian men. More broadly, given the prevalence of intimate partner violence within the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities and the role of patriarchal norms in inflicting this harm, it is now more important than ever to reimagine expectations surrounding men’s behavior.
By further examining the problems caused by adherence to traditionally masculine norms and implementing certain solutions, these ideas can be challenged and dismantled to create a progressive and more inclusive model of manhood. Above all, identifying and eradicating toxic ideas rooted in traditional South Asian masculinity will lead to liberation for all people.
January 16, 2023January 16, 2023 6min readBy Sejal Sehmi
I was a mere 14-year old on the fateful night of 22 April 1993. The night that witnessed black teenager Stephen Lawrence brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack as he waited for a bus. The night that cemented my fear, that the colour of my skin does matter. The same night that confirmed my indifference as a British Asian in the United Kingdom — were we really united? Fast forward to May 25 2020, the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white policeman was the turning point for British Asian author and my lovely friend, Shweta Aggarwal to finally break her silence and narrate her story of colourism, in her new book, “The Black Rose.”
Aggarwal’s gripping memoir emits so many emotions; that of an awakening, a voice that has been suppressed for years, filled with anger, mistrust and guilt. But most importantly, “The Black Rose” successfully disrupts the narrative that consistently allows society to box someone as indifferent based on a visibility factor. For Shweta, this factor was the colour of her skin. The injustices she consistently endured via some family members and fellow South Asian peers throughout her life, was as a result of her skin tone failing to qualify as ‘acceptable’, or as she often quotes in her book, not ranking high enough on the ‘fairometer.’ Whether she was in India, Japan or London, the scale was never too far behind.
Within the first chapter, she recalls as a child in India, the distinct lack of subtlety displayed by certain family members through direct taunts of her duskier appearance in comparison to her parents. She realised that she wasn’t in complete isolation from this prejudice, as her maternal aunt and uncle were also harshly nicknamed on the basis of their skin colour — Kaali (black) and Savla (wheatish). Aggarwal was left mortified by what many South Asians sadly still continue to casually exercise. Echoing similar incidents within my social proximity, it’s infuriating witnessing the recipients of such remarks surrender to laughing at themselves too.
Except it isn’t funny. Born into a culture where conversations on religion, caste and hierarchy in India are still so prominent, the comparison of Aggarwal’s skin colour being as dark as that of the domestic help (often from poorer families), prematurely planted seeds in her mind that she simply didn’t belong with her family, especially when she was sent to boarding school. Her lack of self-worth coupled with these taunts, gave her a whole new vocabulary for the letter B, that grew in parallel with the ongoing prejudice and anxiety. B for blackie, beggar’s child, bedwetter! Not funny, but derogatory. Post her book launch that Brown Girl Magazine attended, she tells me,
I personally feel we are way behind when it comes to understanding the importance of mental health. Name-calling was normalised and if you objected, you were ridiculed further with remarks such as ‘So sensitive! Can’t you take a joke?’ Body and colour shaming can lead to a feeling of inadequacy in the victim, which can further lead to depression and much worse mental illnesses.
During the 1984 Hindu Sikh riots in India, where over 3000 Sikhs lost their lives, Aggarwal recollects the frightening moment when she and her classmates fled into hiding to escape the violence during a school trip. As a means to save all the students from harm, the Sikh boys were forced to remove their turbans and long hair — their visible identities stripped to keep them alive. Yet, ironically, even in this horrifying situation, Aggarwal felt least at risk, attributing this self-assurance to her darker appearance.
The crux of her self-loathe was the love-hate relationship she formed with skin whitening creams. The birth of Fair and Lovely, India’s most renown brand (now known as Glow and Lovely following a backlash) was notorious for selling the damaging message that fairer skin equated to a happier and fulfilling life. For it was fairer skin women that would qualify for marriage — clearly their only sole purpose!
Tactfully using famous fair-skinned Bollywood actresses in television ads and posters, their so-called perfection would scream out to vulnerable young girls. (Men were targeted much later on, but the importance seemed less). Akin to the wretched beach body posters plastered on every corner in January — because apparently bikinis only look good on a certain body type — the damaging message remains the same. Social acceptance comes at a cost, and that cost is to look a certain way.
It’s an extension of the dated methods imposed on women from the womb, where mothers are lectured on drinking milk with saffron to ensure the baby is fair, traditional matrimonial sites asking women to specify skin colour, and women being told to stay out of the sun. These socially ingrained views are eventually developed into modern day methods in the form of cleverly marketed consumables. Aggarwal admits,
Most people only use the cream on their face just as I did. At that time, I didn’t even think about the rest of the body. I felt that if the face becomes fairer, that will be enough for acceptance. My mum noticed the difference for sure and I was lighter by the time I met my husband, Amit. I must admit the addiction is a combination of three factors: the justification in your own head, the strong marketing message that ONLY fair is beautiful, and the ‘compliments’ from those around you.
I admired Shweta’s honesty on admitting what essentially was a dangerous obsession that she remained faithful to throughout her teenage and adult life. A ritual that, whilst prompted gradual results in her appearance, was never going to eliminate the insecurities she felt within herself. Moments of joy with her husband and children on holidays abroad, would be broken up by the need to ‘fix’ any damage the sun may have inflicted i.e. reverse her tan. The booming tanning industry in U.K., her now home, and admiration of her ‘sun-kissed’ look by Brits initially surprised Aggarwal — as if her colour had now gained acceptance.
But who are we seeking acceptance from? A society that is still deep rooted in patriarchy forcing women even now to adhere to dated rites of passage that holds no relevance? Or a society that seeks to point out one’s indifference because of how they look — their skin, their religious attire, their weight? Or a society that passes judgement on a woman’s self-worth, and continues to abuse that same woman behind closed doors under the eyes of Goddess Kali? Aggarwarl goes on to explain,
The more damaging perceptions of colourism, are that ‘fair is rich’, ‘fair is successful’ and ‘fair is better educated’. Essentially, ‘fair is supreme’ in every sense. And if that’s the case, where does that leave dark-skinned people? In Ukraine, for example black and brown people were discriminated against and not given a fair chance to save their lives. Is it fair to be denied a basic human right — survival — based on your colour?
I personally was curious to know from my family what the definition of prejudice in the Hindi vocabulary is and how it is/was applied to in India. “Pakshappat” (taking sides) or “poorva dhaarna”, were the closest pure Hindi definitions known to my cousin, yet rarely used. However, my dad stated that “hum bedh bhau nahin hai” was the common term used to state amongst family and friends when someone was not biased and believed in equality. Somehow, colourism never really came under that category. A sentiment echoed by some of my Chinese and black friends . Even in parts of China and Africa, the belief that darker skin is perceived as inferior, is accredited to stereotyping certain groups of people as manual labourers working under the sun, and therefore of a lower class or caste. Does Shweta believe we can change this attitude?
A couple of my aunts are still reluctant to help me with my mission. One even said ‘it’s pointless fighting it’, while one said, ‘everyone has the right to define beauty for themselves and being fairer is what beauty is for some.’ The problem with this is that people then start to look down on people who aren’t. Colourism, casteism and classism divide people, creating more unrest in society. If we continue to aspire to be fairer, we’re still encouraging white skin privilege, and encouraging colonial values. The more we allow ourselves to succumb to these social constructs, the more enslaved we feel internally. Melanin is crucial for protecting our skin against the harmful radiation of the sun. Feel blessed that you have it and wear it with pride!
I wonder how we can dare to walk shoulder to shoulder with our black friends in the Black Lives Matter movement, if we refuse to face up to our own biases against colour? We seek equality in the U.K., but deny our deep-rooted prejudice, whilst a white privileged man lectures the world on the difference between racism and unconscious bias (yes Prince Harry, I’m looking at you!). “The Black Rose” has paved a way for many more voices to speak out against the damaging impact of colourism, and in my view, rightly belongs under the definition of prejudice in the collective South Asian vocabulary.
“The Black Rose” is available to purchase on Amazon.