For this week’s Throwback Thursday, we’re celebrating Mindy Kaling‘s birthday on June 24 slightly early and throwing it all the way back to an excellent episode she wrote for “The Office.”
She soared to success with her work on “The Office,” NBC’s mockumentary style comedy. Kaling played talkative and celebrity-loving customer service rep Kelly Kapoor at the Scranton branch of a paper company. Kelly blessed us with highly quotable dialogues and a ludicrous on-again, off-again relationship with co-worker Ryan.
Kaling not only acted in the comedy, she was also a writer for the show, and was nominated for an Emmy for writing the season 6 episode “Niagara.” Even before that, though, Kaling presented some of her best work in the season 3 episode “Diwali.” In it, Kelly invites the entire office to a Diwali party thrown by her family.
Airing in 2006, this was the first time a popular primetime television show threw a spotlight on the Hindu festival and how some South Asian-American families celebrate it. It was momentous. As an audience, we’ve grown accustomed to seeing holiday episodes on television sitcoms but they’re usually focused on Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was refreshing to see “The Office” and Kaling feature the Indian festival.”Diwali” became an instant standout.
Kelly is talkative and can speak at length, without interruptions, about office gossip, shopping, and pop culture. She very rarely discusses her background or heritage. “Diwali” changes that, even if just for a 20-minute episode. Kaling’s writing shines because she takes a dig at the stereotypes with which Americans view Indian customs as well as the limited knowledge her own character Kelly has about the festival.
As the episode begins, the office manager Michael Scott (Steve Carrell) wants to educate his colleagues about the festival, despite not knowing very much about it himself. He organizes what he calls an ‘Indian culture seminar,’ complete with the walls of the conference room adorned with posters of Hindu gods and goddesses, a presentation on famous Indian personalities like M. Night Shyamalan and (sigh) Apu Nahasapeemapetillon, and pamphlets on Kamasutra. He asks Kelly to speak about the festival. Her response? “Diwali is awesome. There is food, there dancing, and I got the raddest outfit.”
She’s unaware of the origins of Diwali. When her co-worker Dwight steps up and begins talking about the battle between Lord Rama and Ravana, between good and evil, Michael stops him by comparing it to “Lord of the Rings.” We cut to a scene in a brightly lit high school gym where the speakers are blasting a song from “Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge,” several Indians are wearing beautiful traditional clothes, and sumptuous food is being served.
Michael’s ignorance is, as always, partly comical and partly unbelievable. He assumes the Diwali bash will be a costume party and tells his girlfriend as much, so she shows up in a cheerleader costume. He finds the samosa surprisingly spicy because he assumed it was a…s’more. He asks Kelly’s parents about whether or not they will practice Sati.
Kaling has written Michael’s viewpoint through the lens of what she may have experienced about what some Americans probably limit themselves to when they think about Indian culture. Over the course of the episode, Michael even claims he’s “learned a lot about Indian culture and about love.”
He’s not the only one with the restricted views. Kelly’s uptight co-worker Angela is convinced Indians eat monkey brains and despite realizing they’re only serving vegetarian food at the party, she opts to eat the naan alone. She also stands outside to eat where the shoes are kept to ensure no one steals them.
Meanwhile, Kelly is impatiently trying to convince her parents to like her white boyfriend Ryan while they’re horrified at his lack in everything, be it his lack of interest in everything around him, his income, and a prestigious career. They’re convincing her to date a well-educated Indian doctor, instead.
“Diwali” as an episode not only tackles several stereotypes about but also embraces the Indian-American community. Kaling’s writing is a little too on the nose but in this case, it’s warranted. For anyone who’s ever seen “The Office,” it shouldn’t come as a surprise. The show has always reveled in absurd humor that focuses on the character’s quirks. The show always find a way to, despite the craziness of the situation, return to a place of accepted joy.
This is most obvious in the episode’s closing moments when Michael, with the help of his lackey Dwight, sings a song about Diwali.
“The Office” is streaming on Netflix. #TBT your way to season 3, episode 6, “Diwali.”