Inside Out. 2015. USA. Directed by Pete Docter. 94 min. Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Mindy Matters: Inside Out at the Hammer Museum

As someone with a film studies background, the entire The Contenders series at the Hammer was fascinating to me—what makes up the movies that stand the test of time, and what are the creative forces behind them? When we added Inside Out as our final film in the series last week, with none other than Mindy Kaling in attendance, my academic interest in film collided with my personal fandom. I love Kaling as a performer, but I’m also deeply interested in her role as an icon for South Asian women in pop culture more generally.

My parents came to the United States from India in the 1970s, and growing up in the 80s and 90s, I never saw South Asians on screen—just the occasional sidekick character or guest star, and the majority of those were in so-called “brown-face” (white actors with brown makeup). The only “Indians” I remember from my childhood media consumption were Mogli from Disney’s 1967 The Jungle Book or Peter Seller’s bumbling immigrant in Blake Edwards’s 1968 The Party. I loved both of those movies because I saw a shade of myself and my family in them, but it wasn’t until Margaret Cho’s family sitcom All-American Me that I realized that 1) there could be more than one Asian on screen and 2) we could actually be represented as well-rounded, complex characters. 

Fast-forward 20+ years, and we’ve entered a media landscape where Asian characters are fairly commonplace. Some are parts of ensemble casts (The Walking Dead, Silicon Valley, Elementary), some comprise entire shows (Fresh Off the Boat), and some, like Mindy Kaling and Aziz Ansari, are the protagonists of their own shows and have become comedy icons. I have found Mindy fascinating since her early days as Kelly Kapoor on The Office, where her ditzy, celebrity-obsessed character was a breath of fresh air from the common stereotype of South Asians being brainy scientists or math whizzes. I was thrilled when she got her own show—not only because she is the consummate screwball comedy performer, but because watching a South Asian woman navigate the complexities of friendship, work, and romance on a primetime network television show (now moved to Hulu) was immensely satisfying. She stumbles and falls—literally and metaphorically—all the while wearing bright, clashing, and delightful clothes lovingly put together by costume designer Salvador Perez. Mindy is front and center, unmissable, complex, and hilarious, reminding me what was missing from my childhood screens.

In Inside Out, Mindy plays the character of Disgust in what is her most prominent feature-film role yet, adding Hollywood actress to the many hats she wears—author, TV star, fashion icon, social media sensation.  Her quirky Twitter feed and Instagram posts have firmly established her as the celebrity that everyone wants to befriend, and the fact she acts alongside comedy heavyweights in a Golden-Globe winning film suggests that her talent and charisma have earned her a place in the big leagues. I’m excited to meet her and to hear her talk about the film, but I’m even happier I get to see and hear a South Asian American woman on the big screen (albeit as a green animated figure). Here’s hoping that little brown girls everywhere learn from Inside Out not only that growing-up can be difficult, but also that there’s room for them behind and on the many screens of American popular culture.

Inside Out screens at the Hammer on Wednesday, February 10 at 7:30 p.m., followed by a Q&A with actor Mindy Kaling and producer Jonas Rivera, moderated by KPCC FilmWeek critic Claudia Puig.

Advanced, online ticket sales for this film are closed. On-site tickets are available the night of the screening on a first-come, first-served basis. Box office opens 1 hour prior to screening start time.

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Tags: the contenders, film, mindy kaling, public programs