When I saw the trailer for “Never Have I Ever” I was disappointed, annoyed, and consumed with secondhand embarrassment. How could they make a TV show about an Indian girl who was obsessed with losing her virginity, “popping her cherry”, “getting railed” or any of the provocative phrases that were used in the show?
Short answer: they didn’t.
“Never Have I Ever” is a new Netflix teen comedy show made by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher. It features an Indian-American teen Devi Vishwakumar, who wants to make a fresh start after a traumatic freshman year in which she experiences a three-month-long paralysis following her father’s death.
After the trailer, “Never Have I Ever” surprised me. Devi Vishwakumar, who is excellently played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, is relatable. She wasn’t your Indian stereotype, consumed just with her schooling, and obeying her parents. She is a three-dimensional character, with motive, pain, and emotions.
Devi is a firecracker. She is angry, she is resentful, she is competitive, she has a penchant for swearing and a habit of insulting people. In other words, that part of her personality – the overachieving yet angry nerd – was me in a nutshell.
Yet she was given substance beyond that. We are given a character who struggles through trauma, makes bad decisions, and she is not glorified for it. She is called out by her friends for being self-centered, a liar, and every mistake she makes. Devi is a character who feels real. While she takes from parts of the Indian stereotype, she is made into a three-dimensional character who I related to and it made me happy.
Initially, the element that did turn me off, the obsession with her virginity, was a little over-the-top. I felt as though Devi was being idiotic and foolhardy, trying to “pop her cherry” just for the sake of it, but the way the show tackles it is well-done. Every action of Devi’s is meant to happen. Whether she’s getting stupidly drunk at a party or insulting a college counselor, it makes sense in the context of her character. Devi’s character is built around her mistakes and her regrets, rather than her triumphs, and it makes the show move forward smoothly.
It’s why the show worked for me. In the beginning, I was skeptical, due to the supposed idiocy of the plotlines. As a high schooler, most of these things didn’t or couldn’t happen to me. But somehow these characters, all-too-human and none a true stereotype, carried the show so well.
Nalini, Devi’s mother, is the best example. She is a tough woman who is struggling through maintaining a dermatology practice, running a household, trying to be a mother, and also going through her grief. She is not your Indian stereotype. Yes, she is strict, but she is sassy, and Westernized. She’s not always likable, but she’s never truly the villain. The clash between Devi and her mother makes them both human. Nalini makes mistakes and she comes to terms with them. She grows as much as Devi does.
Another great example is my personal favorite character, Devi’s supposed rival, Ben Gross. Ben is a well-written character. His rivalry with Devi is hilarious and competitive yet he is also given his moments to shine, such as his own episode: “… been the loneliest boy in the world”. Ben is initially rude and callous, but he grows just as Devi does, side-by-side and he is revealed for the sensitive, sometimes a little dumb, sweet guy he is.
“Never Have I Ever” disappointed in some of its technicalities. Tamilians everywhere are pointing out the cringe-worthy reference to ‘thakkali sambar’ made by Devi’s dad. Let me break it down on behalf of my Tamilian mom. First, ‘tomato sambar’ isn’t a thing. Second, he mispronounces the Tamil word as ‘bald’, not as ‘tomato’. Since Tamil is used sparsely in the sitcom, this truly was annoying for Tamil viewers.
While I did enjoy Mindy Kaling’s storytelling overall, she seemed a bit out-of-touch with her audience. For instance, San Fernando Valley in Southern California near Los Angeles is teeming with Indians. So Sherman Oaks High School must have its fair share of Indian American students. There’s simply no way that Devi could be the ‘only Indian’ in her school or class or even row. It did not make sense.
Yet, despite the minutiae that annoyed me, there are details that made me smile.
Throughout the show, you see Nalini’s ‘vanki’ ring, a traditional ring of curved gold inset with stones. It made me pause the show and stare for a moment. My mother wears an almost identical ring.
Nalini isn’t overly religious, but she hates when books fall on the floor (because in Indian culture books are blessed and tossing them on the floor is a major offense). Their altar, placed in a corner of the house and decorated with photos and statuettes of Hindu gods, looks similar to my own. They make masala dosa (one of my favorite foods), and they call each other “kanna”, a Tamil term of affection that’s been used on me a couple of times.
As a half-Tamilian, these details resonated with me. But they hit home for my mother who enjoyed ‘Never Have I Ever’ a great deal. It is likely the first time in either of our lifetimes that there has been a three-dimensional Indian character on the American screen.
We are seeing Indian cultures, Indian characters as #1 on Netflix. We are seeing ourselves represented on the largest stage outside of India. And that is incredible.
What’s more – the show featured some top Bay Area talent – Richa Moorjani who plays Devi’s gorgeous cousin Kamala, dancer Jaya Kazi who choreographed the moves to Nagade Sang Dhol in the Ganesh puja scene and Rashmi Rustagi who plays an older Indian woman in Episode 1.
Ultimately, I loved this show. Though it made me cringe from time to time (and what teen show doesn’t?), it made me feel seen. I know the rage Devi feels and I know the culture she shirks. This is a show that may not be made for my generation, and it may not be perfect, but it speaks to us. My generation lives with Indian culture and American culture, and we are the ones who are stereotyped as “just another overachieving Indian”. We are Devi, despite how much our personalities may differ.
This show isn’t just for me, in California, cushioned by my South Asian friends and South Asian culture; it’s also for those in middle America who are scared of being seen in Indian clothes and afraid of eating Indian food at school.
This show is for all Indian-Americans who bridge the gap between cultures and deal with its inherent problems. This show is not a one-note story and nobody is close to perfect. The characters and their lives are imperfect, but it all comes together in one touching story.
Just remember – don’t forget your tissues!
Kaavya Butaney is a sophomore at Los Altos High School in Los Altos, CA. She writes for her school newspaper, The Talon, and loves speech and debate and choir. Kaavya is an intern at India Currents.