Sandra Oh only appears in The Princess Diaries for a little over two minutes. Surprised? That’s probably because, as Vice Principal Gupta, the second in command at Grove High School, she delivered lines with such hilarious ferocity that she’s risen far above the status of minor supporting character.
When we look back on the legacy of the 2001’s classic, a more casual observer may spend time waxing poetic about the film’s low-hanging fruit. Yes, we laughed during Mia Thermopolis (Anne Hathaway)’s makeover scene, which basically consisted of an eyebrow tweezer, a pair of contacts, and a hair-straightener. Yes, I still want Julie Andrews’ poised and supportive Queen Clarisse to adopt me.
But when we seriously talk about the movie's cultural impact, there's clearly only one person who has not only remained a prized relic, but continues to inspire — nay, galvanise the generations that have followed.
We first meet Vice Principal Gupta during the opening credits, as she exerts her power over her San Francisco private school dominion. She tells Jeremiah to get off the wall he’s sitting on (the teenager immediately obliges — her power is unquestionable), and says good morning to Lily and “Lily’s friend” Mia (asserting her respect for the social hierarchy).
But then, she learns that the Queen of Genovia is making an appearance at her granddaughter's high school and utters a line that has since launched a thousand TikToks: “"Gupta, mmhmm, mhhmm, mhhmm," she says on the phone before hanging it up on its receiver. She looks up, as a quiet reverence, excitement, and fear all flash in her eyes. "The Queen is coming."
The line is simple yet imbued with so much comedy that it has turned into a meme on social media, where people deliver the line using their pets as a phone. But watching the recreations only proves how much skill Oh brought to the character. She could have easily been a stern, unlikeable, two-dimensional drone with a creepy love of authority. But as with the majority of the characters she plays — from the headstrong, beloved Christina Yang in Grey’s Anatomy to the flawed but charming Eve Polastri in Killing Eve — Oh elevates drama with a deft sense of humour and, more importantly, real relatability. A literal queen is sitting in her office. Of course she giggles in rapturous embarrassment when Clarisse calls her a “fine educator.” This persists later on in the scene, when Gupta brings Queen Clarisse a cup of coffee, visibly shaking and apologising for not having “finer china” for her to sip from, then abruptly hands Mia’s mum an ugly styrofoam cup. She copies the Queen’s graceful mannerisms as she talks, and admonishes people for not “respecting royalty anymore.”
“What is it like in Genovia, your majesty? “Do people just fawn over you?” she asks, before getting strategically whisked out of the office.
It’s impressive what Oh was able to do with just a few lines and the wave of a pom-pom, but also a testament to how undervalued she was by Hollywood for so long — unfortunately, not an uncommon story for a talented woman of colour. She wouldn’t land her breakout role on Grey’s Anatomy until five years — and dozens of small parts and voiceovers — later. But despite the adversity and lack of material, she makes every part, no matter how small, shine, and left an imprint on us well before she finally made the top billing.
Gupta, at least, gets her own crown later on in the film, when school mean girl Lana (Mandy Moore) gets “coned” by Mia, and asks the vice principal for help. “Send it out for dry cleaning!” she says flippantly.
Two decades later, The Princess Diaries has given us a heartwarming story about an ordinary girl who goes on to live an extraordinary life — but a special thank you is in order for Oh, who gave us a much better Gupta than anyone deserved. Unfortunately, she doesn’t get knighted in the film for her contributions to fine education and flaming the school bully, but we’ll knight her in spirit for her much grander contributions to pop culture. Rise, Dame Gupta — we’re grateful.