While boasting POC representation and masterfully engineered subplots, the recently released Netflix original “Never Have I Ever” falls painfully short in its portrayal of immigrated Indians living in America.
The show follows an Indian American girl, Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), who navigates her sophomore year of high school, her bicultural identity and her father’s recent passing. While “Never Have I Ever” represents those who have been hurt by the Indian diaspora and the Indian bicultural identity extremely well, it also often resorts to clichéd, stereotypical representations of local Indians to appease an Indian American audience.
Devi attends Sherman Oaks High School in the San Fernando Valley. Her freshman year “sucked” and this year she had some requests for the Hindu gods — thinner forearm hair, the opportunity to turn down cocaine and a relationship with a “stone cold hottie.” Devi is your quintessential teenage girl, hilarious, aspirational yet troubled by the realities of the high-school-popularity hierarchy and unsatisfied with her place in it. Ramakrishnan brilliantly portrays a teenager torn between two cultures who slowly overcomes her resentment for Indian custom.
“The Mindy Project” colleagues and co-creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher aim to explore a series of topics ranging from emotional trauma, coming-of-age, Indian diaspora, loss and cultural expectation. Devi’s mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) is a single mother who immigrated to the U.S. with her husband Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) in the early 2000s. Nalini single-handedly provides for her daughter and Devi’s cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), who lives with the Vishwakumars while she studies toward a doctoral degree at the California Institute of Technology.
Kaling, who described the show as something that helped her explore and accept her Indian-ness, continues a trend of brown representation in American media that resorts to grossly mischaracterized caricatures of Indian stereotypes, like Apu (Hank Azaria) from “The Simpsons” or Rajesh Koothrapali (Kunal Nayyar) from “The Big Bang Theory.” Kamala and Nalini are cast as characters who seem almost comically backward and almost entirely unrepresentative of Indian immigrants. The show also reduces native Indians to often condescending archetypes and pushes a very non-residential Indian (NRI) centric narrative of what the country is like. As in scenes when Devi wrinkles her nose in distaste as she describes her cousin as “just so … Indian,” or when she scowls at her cousin’s bungling of certain English words, the show sometimes denigrates local Indian culture to depict assimilated Indians as symbols of American modernity, reinforcing Western stereotypes of South Asian heritage.
“Never Have I Ever” had a unique position to unite Indian American and local Indian culture but failed to capitalize on it. Kamala, like Rajesh, is expected to have an arranged marriage, which she entertains to “not bring dishonor to her family.” She dumps her East Asian college boyfriend Steve (Eddie Liu) with unnatural ease within less than an hour of meeting her prospective arranged husband Prashant (Rushi Kota) — who, according to Devi, “isn’t a total uggo” — to date this unknown Indian boy instead. Her decision to choose Prashant felt like a disappointing move presented as redemption for her short tryst with a non-Desi suitor. Contrary to what most Western productions lead you to believe, immigrated Indian women don’t always need to end up with Indian men. Female Indian characters seem to repeatedly adhere to a narrative arc wherein they either tie the knot with someone in their community or are desperate to marry someone with a green card safety net. The trope is outdated and annoying, as Indian womens’ choices are not that binary. It isn’t always fair to say that her family or community will shun her just because she opted to not marry a Desi boy of her parents’ choice.
However, Kamala’s fierce personality and work ethic mesh beautifully to fracture several “good Hindu daughter” stereotypes. Her remarkable and forceful determination to work after marriage despite the disapproving frowns tossed her way by patriarchal uncles and her resolution to be considered an equal in her romantic relationships is admirable and diverges from the traditional expectation of women in arranged marriages.
The series casts an excellent set of actresses to play the leading roles, with Devi making an exceptionally relatable protagonist. She is clever, slightly hedonistic, aspirational and yet realistic. She is unafraid of expressing anger — real, honest anger that is unashamed of seeming unattractive — the kind you never see in a Bollywood film. She smashes her beaker when one-upped by her intellectual rival Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison) in chemistry class, is tearfully and violently angry while confronting her mother regarding comments made on the night her father died, and quite comically sets the mock-world afire following a perceived betrayal during a Model UN conference.
The cameras hone in on Devi attempting to navigate her tumultuous high school experience. Fixated on the conventionally attractive Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), Devi often forsakes her two best friends and fellow dorks, Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young). The series shares DNA with other similar coming-of-age series like “The Kissing Booth” and “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” in adhering to a jock-falls-in-love-with-dork theme. It also delves into Devi’s love life and pits the meaningful connection she finds with Ben against the physical attraction she feels for Paxton. Ben’s character development is wonderful to witness, and the audience grows to root for this young boy who spent his whole life swimming in riches while drowning in loneliness — a boy who just wants someone on his team.
The story also boasts several subplots, most of which deal with heavy topics and are executed seamlessly. One subplot follows Fabiola exploring her sexuality and coming out to her friends and family, another shows artistically-gifted Eleanor attempting to reintegrate her derelict mother into her life, and the last exemplifies Devi’s family accepting and moving on from her father’s death. The show deals with other parts of the Indian experience competently, in its exploration of Devi’s diaspora to every Indian girl’s worst enemy — the nosy “Indian aunty.”.
“Never Have I Ever” is often heart-wrenching and beautiful, taking the audience on a journey of grief, love, loss and acceptance. Ramakrishnan’s stellar performance humanizes Devi and mystifies viewers. The show is rife with people of color and creates storylines that incorporate their cultural identities without hinging on them, which is the kind of representation I’ve always craved in entertainment. The show doesn’t check all the boxes — but it shouldn’t need to. As any other quintessential, dramatic coming-of-age show, it’s allowed to be imperfect. “Never Have I Ever” is a fabulous stepping stone into the 21st century and hopefully lays the foundation for more South Asian stories. I, for one, am excited to watch season two.