Kaling is executive-producing the HBO Max show and voicing Velma, the bespectacled brainiac in the Mystery Inc. gang. When it was announced that Kaling would be behind the character, fans were supportive, she said in an appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers.
However, when Warner Bros.’s Tom Ascheim revealed in June that the character’s ethnicity would be changed for the show, “people were not happy,” continued Kaling. “There was a lot of, like, ‘So, not Velma!’ Those kinds of tweets. ‘Not the classic Velma that I’m always thinking about!’”
She added: “I just couldn’t understand how … people couldn’t imagine a really smart, nerdy girl with terrible eyesight, and who loved to solve mysteries, could not be Indian. There are Indian nerds! That shouldn’t be a surprise to people.”
Confusingly, Ascheim, the studio’s kids and young adults chief, initially said the new Velma would be of East Asian descent. Kaling made it clear she will be South Asian. Neither Scooby-Doo nor the iconic Mystery Machine van will feature in the new series.
News of the change of ethnicity prompted a mix of approving and negative reactions online. Some made nakedly racist comments. Others feared the decision may play into stereotypes of Asian Americans as studious, or asked whether it would have been better simply to create an original character.
As sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen told NBC News, “It’s lazy for Hollywood to just try to use old material and try to freshen it up when they could actually create true freshness by centering people of color, centering BIPOC stories rather than just trying to revamp old stories.”
It’s worth noting that Velma has not always been played by white actors in the past. In the live-action tv films Scooby-Doo! The Mystery Begins (2009) and Scooby-Doo! Curse of the Lake Monster (2010), she was played by Hayley Kiyoko, who is of Japanese descent. In last year’s animated feature Scoob!, she was voiced by Gina Rodriguez, who is Puerto Rican.
Kaling’s Velma is billed as a new comedic origin story about the character. Charlie Grandy, Howard Klein, and Sam Register also serve as executive producers. The series is produced by Warner Bros. Animation.