Never Have I Ever…Felt Seen
By: Ramya Kumar
The minute I saw Mindy Kaling’s Instagram post for an Untitled Netflix coming-of-age series about a teenage Indian-American girl, I immediately began planning my audition process. I emailed the casting company letting them know of my interest in the lead role and promptly received a preliminary script for the show. I gathered my friends and their finest cameras, attempted to bring out the Oscar-worthy performance I believed I had buried deep inside, and tried my best to play Devi Vishwakumar even though my last acting experience was in my elementary school production of Little Red Riding Hood wherein I played a tree. I eagerly submitted my audition to Kaling’s casting company, and unfortunately, while expectedly, I didn’t make the cut. The day the show premiered, I binged it with my younger sister in 5 hours, and loved every minute of it; it’s funny, emotional, heart-warming, and a true must-watch.
With a warm embrace of Desi-American culture, whip smart one-liners, and an obvious love for the classic coming-of-age arc, Mindy Kaling and her The Mindy Project co-writer, Lang Fisher, have reunited for Netflix Original Never Have I Ever. The comedy series is about Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an Indian-American girl struggling to process her grief following the passing of her father all while attempting to climb her high school’s social ladder by obtaining her first ever boyfriend.
The show begins with a scene of Devi praying in front of several Hindu gods before her first day of school as her geometry textbook sits in front of them; she prays for an invitation to a party with alcohol and hard drugs, thinner arm hair, and a boyfriend (but not a nerd from her AP classes). All of these prayers are universally acknowledged desires amongst most South Asian adolescents, and from there, Devi becomes the relatable, perfectly imperfect main character in this coming-of-age series.
Like the parents of many Gen-Z children of immigrants, Devi’s parents moved to the U.S. from India shortly after 9/11, when it wasn’t “a super chill time to be a Brown person in America.” Devi spent all of her life very close to her father, Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) who suddenly passed away in the middle of her orchestra concert at the end of her freshman year. With her father gone, Devi has to figure out how to navigate her strained relationship with her mother, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) who tries her own methods of attempting to grieve her husband’s passing and raise her daughter in his shadow. Devi, unable to process her grief, focuses all her energy on becoming popular and getting a boyfriend who’s a “hottie with a body.” With all this laid out in the first half of the pilot, the audience rejoins Devi as she enters her sophomore year of high school, determined to live down the tragedies of the previous school year and eager to catapult her and her best friends into ranks of the popular kids.
For as long as anyone can remember, much of the representation for South Asians has almost always been found in very minor roles: the best friend/sidekick for the white lead actor/actress (Areida in Ella Enchanted), the fresh-off-the-boat nerd with no social skills (Raj Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory), or the convenience store owner with a racist Indian accent (Apu in The Simpsons). Aside from Jess Bharma (Parminder Nagra) in Bend it Like Beckham, Indian girls raised in Western societies have always had to find ways of relating to white coming-of-age narratives to find representation as a teenager. Hollywood has left Indian-Americans grasping at straws for any chance to see themselves on screen.
Never Have I Ever provides a never-before-seen form of validation to a multitude of experiences that are part of growing up as a Desi-American teenager in the 21st century, and the specificity of this representation itself deserves applause. Wishing for thinner arm hair; being picked for a group project because you are assumed to be “the smart one” who will do all of the work; struggling to balance the American culture you are surrounded by and the Indian culture you grow up in; despising the itchiness of the polyester and mesh in a half-sari; avoiding the judgy aunties at temple; and getting yelled at for dropping a school textbook that has been blessed by the gods on the ground are just a few of the many instances that give the audience an accurate and honest portrayal of life as an Indian-American teenager.
Kaling, Fisher, and the rest of the show’s writers masterfully create a well-developed Indian character who—like every teenage girl—makes mistakes, doesn’t understand how life works, and does her best to do what she thinks is right. Too often, Indian girls who grow up in white-majority schools and towns spend most of their lives having their name mispronounced, their beauty disregarded for Eurocentric beauty standards, and their identities engulfed in racist stereotypes. Through the show’s jokes about the struggles of being Indian and being a teenager, Never Have I Ever speaks to the millions of Indian-American girls who have never seen a Hollywood sitcom with a main character who looks like them and tells them that they are not alone in trying to figure out life in the U.S., and they more than deserve to have their stories told.
Never Have I Ever is now streaming on Netflix.