When was the last time you watched a film or TV show about a South Asian girl who grapples with her Indian-American identity?
Such storylines might be hard to come by in mainstream television. That’s why when I first heard about Mindy Kaling’s coming-of-age comedy series Never Have I Ever on Netflix, I was intrigued. The show tells the story of a first-generation Indian-American teenage girl, Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) who lives in California with her mother, Dr. Nalini Vishwakumar (Poorna Jagannathan) and “perfect” cousin Kamala Nandiawada (Richa Moorjani). On the surface, the show’s narrative DNA can be compared to other teen rom-coms such as Netflix’s The Kissing Booth and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. But even though I enjoyed watching these films, I couldn’t quite relate to their stories. What sets the not-so-typical Never Have I Ever apart for me is how it smartly assigns depth to its Indian-American female characters. And while the series might appeal to a younger audience (much like the drinking game that shares its title), there is a maturity in how it handles its themes.
In Season 1, I was able to explore the different shades of Brown feminism across generations easily as the tensions between Devi’s desire to assimilate against her mother’s more traditional Indian expectations became more and more prominent with each episode. For instance, we see Devi being dragged to a religious event in an itchy sari where she dodges gossipy aunties and sits through hours of a guru chanting in Sanskrit. In this way, the series is able to offer a refreshing (and relatable) take on growing up in an immigrant family where religious and cultural traditions are part of everyday life.
Later in the season, we see how Devi’s mother Nalini continues to juggle conflicts at home and in the workplace while her cousin Kamala is thrust into the throes of navigating an arranged marriage setup. It’s exciting to watch these three women straddle different experiences and confront issues that are often shied away from in the Indian-American community: mental health, dealing with conflict, and navigating cultural and generational barriers. It’s through this multi-layered storytelling that the show achieves greater dimension. As the series uplifts the “desi diaspora” female voice with equal measures of empathy and humor, it offers a convincing portrayal of what it means to be an Indian-American woman—all while reaffirming the love and kindness that exists at the heart of Devi’s family.
Season 2 brings back more cringe and chaos. By now, we begin to realize that the Vishwakumar women aren’t the only independent and strong-willed women of color who are navigating their world in unique ways. Devi’s best friend Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young), who identifies as Chinese-American, deals with an absent mother who’s chasing her acting dreams; and Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez), who identifies as half Latina and half African-American, struggles to open up to her family about her queer sexuality. Plus, we’re also introduced to a new, charismatic Indian-American Muslim girl, Aneesa (Megan Suri), who puts Devi into a few tricky scenarios that test their friendship. As their relationship evolves from rivalry to comradery, Kaling intelligently portrays a familiar experience for Brown women who are often pitted against one another, either by themselves or society (given the limited spaces that minorities can occupy). And eventually, Devi and Aneesa form a bond that stems from their shared cultural knowledge and understanding.
Now don’t get me wrong. You might have seen many Brown actresses in films. But they’re often stereotyped as geeky and demure sidekicks, much like Parvati Patil in Harry Potter or Ellen in Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging. But there has been no other TV character that I’ve identified with more than Devi.
Why? Because Devi is a hot mess! And that’s the whole point of the series. After gatecrashing her mother’s date, manipulating her grandmother, and betraying her friends, it’s easy to see why she’s nicknamed “Crazy Devi”. But there’s something that is both heartening and subversive about this less-than-perfect teenager who realizes her errors far too late. Much of this becomes evident through the slick editing that lingers on Devi for a few seconds after she’s just encountered a sticky situation. We get an insider’s view of her forced or embarrassed smiles that otherwise go unseen and watch her sit in silent contemplation each time she slams her bedroom door. In essence, these are rites of passage that I can finally relate to.
Sure, there’s the typical teen drama at play here: dating, popularity, surviving your parents’ set rules, and all the tougher issues of love and sexuality. Devi also has moments of loneliness and solidarity that revolve around her cultural identity. Yet, none of the half-hour episodes pigeon-hole her to a cliché or a caricature. We see Devi as more than one experience or characteristic because Kaling portrays her just like any other teen who makes Tik Tok videos, eats junk food, and obsesses over romance. Portraying Devi as a multi-faceted lead, rather than a token Brown character, is what makes this show so special for me.
Some might criticize the Indian accents and the story of Kamala’s arranged marriage as stereotypical. Others might argue that Devi trying desperately to lose her virginity and calling her mom a “bitch” when enraged seems a bit too far-fetched. But, these varying reactions indicate that Devi’s story is just a small slice in the spectrum of South Asian experiences. Being an Indian woman who was raised in the Middle East, my experiences differ a lot from those of Devi, a Hindu teenager living in America. Yet a lot of the themes in Never Have I Ever are relatable—the most important one being the culture/identity confusion: why even I’ve felt “too Asian” in public, but “not Asian enough” in my own home.
Never Have I Ever isn’t the first show to celebrate and expand on Asian American characters. In the last few years, we’ve seen Kaling’s The Mindy Project, Ali Wong’s Always Be My Maybe, the hit trilogy To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, and Crazy Rich Asians. But what is different about this series is that it doesn’t just bring female Asian-Americans to the forefront. It quietly smashes perceived stereotypes simply by letting its characters be fully and authentically human. It gives Devi and others the space to be what Indian-Americans are often denied on screen: the chance to be in charge of their own narrative, as complicated as they want, and in a disarmingly honest way that’ll have you shedding a few tears in some scenes and laughing out loud in others.
It’s funny to admit that I’ve relived much of my formative years on Netflix of all places. And even though I’m almost two decades older than Devi, she’s taught me a lot about shedding those Brown girl stereotypes and embracing my confused cross-cultural self. But most of all, Devi has given me the opportunity to know what it feels like to finally see yourself on screen.
© Reanne Rodrigues (9/17/21) Special for FF2 Media
Reanne is an arts and culture writer based in Manhattan, New York City. Her writing explores what it means to be a global citizen, which stems from her international upbringing across Mumbai, Dubai, London, Toronto, and more. She also loves telling impactful stories about artists and the value they bring to the world. Reach out to her if you’d like to collaborate on any projects or indulge in a lively discussion over chai at www.reannewrites.com.
Featured Photo: “An Evening with Mindy Kaling – Film Independent at LACMA – December 15, 2015” by starbright31 is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Top Photo: Mindy Kaling at the Oscars. “142624_9785” by Walt Disney Television is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0 https://search.creativecommons.org/photos/ba5158ec-a592-4013-95b8-a28857d206c1 https://www.flickr.com/photos/91795856@N02/25063201060 “142624_9785” by Walt Disney Television is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0