The Star Of Mindy Kaling’s New Show Is Here To Make Us Embrace Our Horniness

Photo: Courtesy of HBO Max.
Early on in the first season of The Sex Lives of College Girls, freshman Bela Malhotra — an 18-year-old South Asian student at the fictional Essex College — flips the script. Or at least, that’s how she sees it. Trying to get a spot on the masthead of the college’s prestigious (if snooty and very white) comedy magazine, she does, as she says, what men have been doing for years: exchanges sex for opportunities. As in, she gives six hand jobs to comedy nerds in exchange for them voting for her. “Sorry, I’m gonna crank 'em," Bela tells her shocked roommates post-party.
A show centring young women exploring, and dare we say, enjoying, sex is still a rarity on screens, and even more so if the women are South Asian. The opportunity to push back on long-held depictions and stereotypes of South Asian women is part of what drew 28-year-old Ontario native Amrit Kaur (Little Italy and Star Trek: Short Treks) to the role of Bela in the HBO Max series, which was co-created by Mindy Kaling and premieres November 18 in the US (a UK release date is still yet to be announced).
And Kaur’s portrayal of Bela — “Like in Twilight, just Indian,” as Bela introduces herself — as a relatable teen trying to be sex positive and empowered, navigate imposter syndrome, balance her parent’s expectations, and bag a hot but ultimately mediocre white guy, will make you both cringe and fall in love with the character. Of course, she’s not doing it alone. Alongside Kaur’s Bela are her three roommates: Kimberly (Pauline Chalamet), Whitney (Alyah Chanelle Scott), and Leighton (Reneé Rapp), who are all separately trying to find their footing both in and out of the bedroom in this long-awaited, updated, and more inclusive iteration of romp-filled coming-of-age watches like American Pie, Superbad, and Booksmart.
We chatted with Kaur from L.A. (where she’s doing promotion for the show and having a good hair day, thanks to that California heat) about the casting process, why it’s revolutionary to see a South Asian woman being horny on-screen, and who we still need to see behind our TV screens. (Hint: more South Asian creatives.)
Refinery29: Congratulations on the show! How are you feeling in the leadup to the premiere?
Amrit Kaur: Oh my God, I'm so grateful and so excited. My parents are here with me. My dad comes from a small village in India where you don't even talk to the opposite gender. Even though he's uncomfortable with the idea of his daughter being on a show with the title that says sex, the fact that he’s done enough work to be like, I want to come and support her is just mind-boggling for me. So I'm so grateful that they're both here. 
R29: I was going to ask if you were going to allow them to watch the show.
AK: Oh yeah. I'm sort of a rebellious person [laughs], so I’m not the best daughter in that sense. When I got the first two episodes, my parents were the first people who saw it, and I thought, at least they know what's out there [and] there's no shock. My dad is shitting his pants, but he's so proud and excited as well.
R29: Can you tell me a little bit about the casting process? 
AK: When the audition came out, they said they only wanted to audition people with an O-1 visa [which allows people in the arts to stay in the U.S. for up to three years]. I didn’t have it, but my heart connected to the part and my rep and I were just like: Fuck it, let's go for it. If they like me they'll have to figure it out. So I auditioned, and then I got a callback for a chemistry read, and they cancelled it because they found out I didn’t have the visa. My representation had to do a bunch of calls with immigration and convince them that they could get me an O-1 visa in a matter of weeks.
I did the chemistry read and I just did one take and they didn't give me any notes, so I thought they didn’t like me. After, I was about to eat this bunch of fast food to numb the pain of not getting this project, and then I got a call from my manager saying  “you're in the top three.” Then there was another audition and I didn't get the O-1 visa the first [try]. And then finally, the second time around, they got everybody to write letters — Mindy, Justin [Noble, the co-creator of the show], all the producers — to convince the government that I should have this part and no one else could do it. 
R29: You really worked for the part! You mentioned that you felt connected to the role when you first read it. What really drew you to the show and to this role? 
AK: I'm sure you can relate, that we haven't seen South Asian people be sexual on screen or even to be talking about sex, let alone just being on screen. We went from not having sex at all, and then the industry allowed us to be sexual on screen, but we have to [look like] models. This is really the first time that we have just a normal, average girl experiencing sex and being dominant. That's really important. It's a big lie that we've told; North America has put us in this trap that brown women have to be submissive; it follows through to colonialism and white dominance, and patriarchy. But that's not true. We're not submissive, we’re dominant, and we're dominant in bed. And our culture [here and in India] has a lot of work to do to come back to terms with the reality that we are sexual. That goes for my family as well; they've had a lot of struggle with me playing this part. And that's something we're all learning. 

"If women were allowed to to act the way they fuck, which is dominant, it would intimidate men, that’s why we’re not allowed to do that."

R29: I completely relate to that, having grown up in this idea of having to be submissive and demure and not really embracing the fact that you can be somebody who enjoys sex for pleasure. Did that take any sort of unlearning for you coming into this?
AK: Oh my God, yes. But it wasn't just for the part. When I was in theatre school, I was scared of doing any parts where I even had to kiss someone or be sexual at all. I really adopted this lie of being the submissive Indian girl because that's what I was told was attractive. That's how I would get a good suitor. And then I finally went to the acting studio [Gracemoon Arts Company] and my teacher was like: You're telling a big lie. We did a lot of work. I felt guilty the first time I did an acting scene where I had to kiss someone. I could see my dad's face! There was a lot of unlearning to do with that. And it's not just brown people, it's women in general. Women in general aren’t allowed to be dominant in their sexuality. If women were allowed to act the way they fuck, which is dominant, it would intimidate men, that’s why we’re not allowed to do that.
R29: I loved your character and how outspoken she was, but I caught myself being taken aback by how vocal she was and some of the graphic (but funny!) terms she used.
AK: There's probably that discomfort of a woman talking so openly about her sexuality and also the admittance that a young woman is talking about liking it rough. Then we also have to balance — and Bela has to deal with it — is does she get herself into dangerous situations just fucking in general? Not all sex is safe. But she’s so desperate to be fucked by a ten, she doesn't care how she gets fucked. And she's probably having unsafe sex, which is all tied into her desperate desire to be loved by men, which is such a human experience. I've had so many sexual experiences where I was just being desperate and looking back thinking, should I have done that? Should I not have done that?  She's talking about it without consciousness of whether her sex is healthy or not. 
R29: With that in mind, what are you hoping that young women who do watch the show take from Bela's character and her experience with sex? 
AK: I don't think Bela is necessarily the role model for sex [laughs]. But I hope that especially brown girls but girls in general, feel comfortable talking about sex. I remember going through high school and college with my brown girlfriends and we continued to pretend we were virgins. We never spoke about sex, and because we weren’t having open conversations, there were things that were happening behind doors that we couldn't talk to each other about because there was so much shame. There are dangerous situations that come from that lack of communication. But at least now if brown girls and girls in general see someone who is open about sex on screen, they might understand that other girls are also having sex and having those conversations, so that ultimately we can get to a place where girls are helping each other make sure they're in safe situations. That's what I really hope. 
R29: Now that we have the sexy bits out of the way, the show is called The Sex Lives of College Girls, but it’s really about the friendship between the four roommates. How has that relationship translated off-screen?
AK: We created a group chat almost immediately. It was interesting because the four girls on screen are getting to know each other with time, and that's exactly what our relationship was. Especially in the beginning, we all had a lot of compassion for each other coming into a big project. I was in L.A. alone for Christmas and New Year's, and Reneé invited me over. That was very wholesome and that made me feel really great. We all got together at the Marriott Inn where we were staying, and played We’re Not Really Strangers and answered all these vulnerable questions and were crying. So we've gotten to know each other more and more with time, just as the characters have.

"Now if brown girls and girls in general see someone who is open about sex on screen, they might understand that other girls are also having sex and having those conversations, so that ultimately we can get to a place where girls are helping each other make sure they're in safe situations."

R29: That’s so sweet. Would you say that you’re a Bela?
AK: Oh yeah, Bela, no doubt about that [laughs]. Through and through Bela. Just this deep desire to be considered hot among the guys that are a ten, so desperately wanting to be liked that she's grabbing on to any new thing. The cool thing. Not feeling sexy enough, so she opts to be the funny girl. Just the desperate desire to be loved and liked, I resonate with that so deeply, and I'm a very loving person who's desperate to be loved. 
R29: I feel like that can be universal for a lot of young women. 
AK: Absolutely. 
R29: You’re a producer and writer as well, what would you like to do next? 
AK: I have a bunch of projects that I'm writing, and I'm in acting class constantly, three times a week; I love working on my craft. But I would love to do a feature film, something more dramatic, but still in the same vein of being the outsider about the true reality of what it means to be a South Asian girl. We have so many different people that are Caucasian on the screen, and we have so many different experiences and so few South Asians, so that when we see one character on screen, we’re like that wasn't my experience. It’s almost unfair because we just haven't had the opportunity to tell hundreds or thousands of different stories of being South Asian. India has so many different cultures, so I want to be part of that. I just want to keep telling the truth of what it is to be brown... I really want to see a beautiful story about two brown women totally in love. I think we're getting braver in Indian reality TV [like Family Karma and Indian Matchmaking], and now we have to translate it into fiction. But if nobody writes it, I'm going to write that script.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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