Mindy Kaling’s mother inspired new TV ‘Project’
LOS ANGELES — Mindy Kaling is on a tear. The Cambridge-born comic actress/writer/producer/director was nominated for an Emmy in 2010 for her writing on “The Office.” Her 2011 book, “Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns),” became a New York Times bestseller. She boasts about 1.87 million Twitter followers.
And now Kaling has her own sitcom, “The Mindy Project,” debuting on Fox Tuesday. She plays a thirtysomething obstretrician/gynecologist addicted to romantic comedies. The show, and its setting, were inspired in part by her mother’s years as an ob/gyn at St. Elizabeth’s Medical Center in Boston.
But Kaling’s success has been tempered by loss. On the very day she heard “The Mindy Project” had been picked up by Fox, her mother died of pancreatic cancer.
Kaling says that during her mother’s illness she spent a great deal of time at St. Elizabeth’s, a place with which she was intimately familiar, and which helps inform her portrayal of a character close to her heart.
“I grew up there,” she says of the hospital where her mother, Dr. Swati Chokalingam, saw patients and delivered babies for more than 30 years. “I was basically living there, and I actually know what it was like the way my mom saw it, so it was kind of an interesting experience.”
“Between the pilot and writing my book, it was all basically when she was diagnosed last year around this time,” said the Dartmouth-educated Kaling, 33, during a recent interview in West Hollywood. “I did so much writing for both. And then I got to spend a lot of time with her and run little bits of dialogue by her, so she’s very much a part of the process of both my book and this new show.”
Chokalingam’s colleagues also see a lot of Swati in her daughter.
Dr. Michael Zinaman, professor and chairman of the Ob/Gyn department at St. Elizabeth’s, says Chokalingam “was very funny in her own way” and loved to tell stories about her daughter. “It’s clear that she’s energetic like her mom. She’s obviously quite funny and extremely well-spoken. I think the viewership from the St. Elizabeth’s broader community [for “The Mindy Project”] will probably be 100 percent. There’s a lot of heartfelt love for her here.”
Chokalingam was such a big fan of “The Office” that she and her husband, Avu, agreed to appear in the “Diwali” episode of the show as the parents of Kaling’s character, the stupefyingly shallow Kelly Kapoor. (Mrs. Kapoor tries to get Kelly to dump temp worker Ryan for a “perfect match,” a doctor.)
There’s little doubt that Kaling’s mother was proud of her daughter’s success, says Kaling’s friend and “Office” costar Ellie Kemper, who plays the sweet-hearted receptionist Erin.
“I remember when [the] Christmas episode [Kaling wrote] was airing, and her mom called and it sounded like nonstop praise: ‘I liked this part, and this part, and this part.’ Mindy could not get a word in edgewise, and then she abruptly hung up and said, ‘I have to go watch it again,’ ” Kemper recalls with a laugh. “I just know how much she loved the show.”
At a packed recent press event and party to celebrate the new fall season on Fox, Kaling was in the middle of a whirlwind. As music boomed, dancers from “So You Think You Can Dance” fawned over Kaling and posed for her camera. An agent came over and pitched his client for a role on her show.
While fellow Fox stars milled about — Zooey Deschanel, Kiefer Sutherland, some of the gang from “Glee” — Kaling’s sparkly, mischievous eyes scanned the room and then sharpened into a friendly laser focus as she talked about the remarkable events of the last few years.
Her mind went back not only to her mother, but to another big influence, the late funny lady Nora Ephron.
Kaling’s character in “The Mindy Project” is such a romantic comedy nut that she’s seen watching Ephron films, including “When Harry Met Sally” and “You’ve Got Mail.”
“It’s been such a weird year because my mother passed away very unexpectedly and she loved romantic comedies, and she actually loved Nora Ephron. And then Nora Ephron passed away,” says Kaling, who learned Ephron was a fan when she received an e-mail informing her Ephron had been giving Kaling’s book as a holiday gift.
“She wrote me, and it was so meaningful to me. And then she read my script [for ‘The Mindy Project’] and wrote me a long e-mail, and I was so floored,” Kaling says.
“And I thought, ‘God, the two people that I would have been so waiting to see what they thought of it, my mom and Nora Ephron . . . ’ ”
She trails off before catching herself with a smile.
“Obviously, there’s much more significant and profound reasons that I’m sad that they died so young, but I wish I could’ve been able to show them the show.”
Kaling says she still feels her mom’s presence and plans to help others devastated by cancer. “My dream is to be able to become so famous that I can actually make a difference in pancreatic cancer research,” she says.
And she plans to it do it one laugh at a time, starting with “The Mindy Project,” for which she also serves as writer and show runner, calling all the shots — and taking them. It’s a new experience for her, accustomed as she is to being part of the ensemble in “The Office,” on which she was ultimately promoted to executive producer.
(Kaling appeared in last Thursday’s season premiere of “The Office” to wrap up Kelly’s storyline in that show’s final season.)
“I have largely escaped scrutiny in a good way,” she says with a laugh. “What’s nice is that on ‘The Office’ if you did a really good job writing an episode or you did a bad job, the show kind of absorbed the praise or the criticism. The book was the first time where it was like, if it does well I get to take the credit, but if it does badly it’s all on me, too. But that gave me a lot of confidence to write the pilot.”
Kaling is excited to join the current vanguard of women taking charge in comedy that includes “Girls” creator-star Lena Dunham, “Parks and Recreation” writer-star Amy Poehler, and “30 Rock” creator-star Tina Fey. “I feel a part of something special,” she says.
And she’s still getting used to the idea of being held up as an Indian-American role model.
“Sometimes when you’re a minority and you’re writing a show for yourself you don’t know that people are pinning hopes and dreams on you in a way and, like, if this fails, does this mean they won’t take chances on Indian-American actresses?” she wonders.
“That would be a bummer. I’m not one of these people that’s like, ‘I didn’t get into this to be a role model.’ . . . We’re all role models to a certain extent. You have that responsibility to not do things or say things that you wouldn’t want to perpetuate. But at the same time it’s like I didn’t go into politics, I came out to Hollywood to write and act in earnest. I feel it’s a balance.”