“I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
– W. B. Yeats*
These two lines from Yeats’s poem appear at the beginning of the movie, but with hilarious effect. Director Nisha Ganatra and screenwriter actor Mindy Kaling do not waste time in setting the mood and pace of what is to come. Molly Patel (Kaling), a woman of Indian descent walking briskly on the streets of NYC meets her destiny as a full bag of garbage is thrown at her face while she recites these poetic lines to herself, mustering up courage and confidence as she heads to the interview for her dream job.
She’s hired, but not based on her merits. Molly is now a writer for the TV talk show host, the iconic Katherine Newbury, whose late night show has been around for nearly three decades. The reason that Molly gets it? ‘Diversity hire’, for Molly has no background in writing comedy except cracking jokes over the PA in the chemical plant where she works as a quality control personnel. One writer in the team groans, “I wish I was a woman of colour so I could get any job I want with no qualifications.” With that line, we know that both Ganatra and Kaling, two ‘women of colour’, are poised to deal with a relevant workplace issue head-on.
Molly’s new work environment might just be as toxic as the chemicals in her previous employment because now she has to prove herself fit for the job, to her colleagues and her boss. The seven others in the writing team are all white male, while two other who used to be there have just been fired by Katherine, one for asking for a raise and the other talking on the phone with his girlfriend. The remaining seven know how to keep their job: colour within the lines and tread as carefully as possible so not to step on their boss’s ego.
Katherine Newbury is masterfully played by Emma Thompson. She is spot-on in portraying the sharp-tongued, hard-nosed TV anchor who is too blinded by her own light to realize her star rating has been falling like a meteoroid, and that a younger, cocky Daniel Tennant (Ike Barinholtz) is too eager to take over. The studio decision to terminate her show comes as a devastating blow to Katherine.
Scrambling to rescue her place, Katherine Newbury meets her writers for the first time. And in that writing room, the two women, Katherine the star TV anchor clashes with the novice, ex-chemical plant quality controller Molly, who points out––with good intention––Katherine’s lack of relevance in contemporary social media-driven society. Interestingly, as the two women from totally different demographic backgrounds come to interact with each other, the older one begins to feel like she’s looking at her former, younger self. And with that, Kaling brings in yet another critical societal issue: remaining relevant in the battle against ageism.
Thompson is brilliant in delivering depth and not merely a two-dimensional, Cruella type caricature of a boss as in The Devil Wears Prada, although she has plenty of opportunities to do just that. Thanks to Kaling’s subplot bringing in John Lithgow as Katherine’s Parkinson’s afflicted husband Walter, we get to know some of Katherine’s backstory. Although his character isn’t fully developed, Lithgow’s sporadic appearances act as a conduit through which we get to see a hidden facet inside the seemingly tough outer shell of Katherine’s. Kudos to Kaling in not focusing on her own story in the movie but letting Thompson shine in the limelight, and the veteran actor delivers with versatility and energy, probably rescuing some overtly melodramatic sequences.
Who better to write the script than Mindy Kaling herself. The movie is like a biopic of her own TV career, well, not exactly in the details but definitely the trajectory. Before this her first full feature screenplay, Kaling, the daughter of immigrant parents from India, was first hired as a writer for the pilot of a new TV series called The Office (2005-2013). Exactly, that award winning series which later lasted for nine seasons. Kaling also appeared as the character Kelly Kapoor and became producer as well. After The Office, she went on to create her own series The Mindy Project with six seasons. She is Dr. Mindy Lahiri, the character inspired by Kaling’s mother who was an obstetrician/gynecologist, and the namesake, the author Jhumpa Lahiri. In the meantime, Kaling authored two books, collections of essays sharing candidly her private self and growing-up a child of immigrant parents. Kaling is an iconoclast in her own right.
Vancouver born director Nisha Ganatra is also of Indian descent. I applaud both women’s excellent efforts in bringing this Sundance (2019) acclaimed feature into mainstream entertainment via Amazon Studio with a reportedly $13 million price tag. Late Night is more glam, clever, and lively than Amazon’s The Big Sick two years back at $12 million. It’s my hope that one day, the word ‘diversity’ will not be necessary to describe contributions from ‘minorities’ or ‘non-whites’ as we all belong to the mainstream.
~ ~ ~ Ripples
*From the poem ‘He Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’