The controversial Netflix series Never Have I Ever, produced by comedian and actress Mindy Kaling, released Season 2 on July 15, 2020. The series is based on a high-school-aged Indian American girl named Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and addresses the experience of an Indian teen living in America. Season 1 brought an uproar of reviews and opinions, good and bad. To me, however, season 1 was nothing short of a disappointment. Finally, someone with an identity like Kaling had been given a platform to create a show which would dispel the hurtful stereotypes of the Indian-American experience. Instead, Kaling approved a Season 1 which further played into those harmful tropes. Despite my outrage at this wasted platform, I decided to give Season 2 a chance hoping that the negative reviews from Season 1 would help the creators rethink their plotline. While Kaling continued to propel some awfully stereotypical ideas, Season 2 brought to light a lot more progressive lessons and experiences.
The introduction of Aneesa Qureshi
Season 2 brings the arrival of a new South Indian to Sherman Oaks. Aneesa (Megan Suri) is Muslim and transfers from a snobby private school following the diagnosis of her eating disorder. Not only does the recognition of eating disorders dispel the traditional Desi ignorance of body dysmorphia and mental health, but Aneesa’s parents deal with her trauma in healthy ways – a way in which Indian parents aren’t traditionally portrayed. She mentions her intense rehab program and ongoing support from, both, professionals and her parents. In fact, when Devi accidentally shares Aneesa’s disorder with the school, Aneesa’s mom insists on moving her to a new school once again. It makes me hopeful to see immigrant parents, that too, South Asian parents, finally being portrayed as progressive and aware of the importance of mental health and wellness. As someone from a family where mental health is prioritized and checked in on often, I am thankful to Kaling for including this storyline to show others that not all South Asian parents are ignorant and the same.
Though Aneesa is Muslim, it is nice to see that she feels empowered to have a boyfriend. Though she feels like she cannot tell her parents, her religion is not a constant conversation topic when she is dating Ben. Sure, if Mindy wanted to be even more progressive, Aneesa could have told her parents about her boyfriend, but maybe that’s pushing it! However, my point is that Ben doesn’t once make a negative comment or have a doubtful thought about Aneesa’s religion. Some may see this lack of recognition as a bad thing, however, I like that Aneesa’s whole storyline isn’t about her being a Muslim woman. She wears modest clothing and talks about eating Halal, but she still gets to act like a teenage girl who sneaks out and has sleepovers.
Lastly, Aneesa is introduced as the second Desi in Devi’s year, but as the “cool” one in comparison to Devi. In the beginning, I was wary of this competition because even women producers tend to pit the lead female characters against each other, but as the show progressed, the audience sees Devi warming up to Aneesa, and at the end even being friends. I appreciated that Aneesa was portrayed as trendy and relevant because one of my biggest issues with Devi’s character was the way she was seen as the typical nerdy, uncool South Asian. While I could have done without the typical “two confident women fighting over a mediocre boy” drama, I appreciated that they were able to maturely work through their differences. I could have used some more “women supporting women” scenes at the beginning.
Nalini Vishwakumar’s romantic progression
Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and Devi lost their husband and father, respectively, right before Season 1. In Season 1, Nalini was strongly against Devi dating, even slapping and lecturing her about it in the stereotypical Indian parent way. It was another stigma I worried the show would play into. In Season 2, however, Chris Jackson was introduced. Dr. Jackson was Nalini’s upstairs neighbor at her dermatology clinic. As two dermatologists in the same building, Dr. Jackson and Dr. Vishwakumar had a dramatic competition over things as trivial as parking spots. Somehow, though, their shared loss of partners, as well as constant bickering, made them fall in love. While Nalini ultimately ends the relationship for Devi’s sake, it was so refreshing to see Kaling give this uptight, stereotypical Indian mother a relationship of her own. I particularly enjoyed that Chris Jackson is a Black man, erasing the idea that Indian immigrants like Nalini are racist. Nalini’s feelings were shown in such a raw way — they even showed Chris and Nalini kiss! Nalini’s character initially felt like a slight to all Indian mothers for being so overprotective and antiquated in their beliefs, so this addition to the storyline was much appreciated.
A progressive mother & mother-in-law!
Season 2 also introduced Devi’s two grandmothers. When Nalini goes to India to make arrangements for a move which never happens, we are introduced to Mohan (Nailini’s deceased husband) and Nalini’s mothers. Nalini’s mother has less airtime but is portrayed as an independent woman. While I didn’t agree with some of her rude comments to Nalini and her poking fun at feminism, her personality dispels certain stereotypes of Indian mothering. Nalini asks her mom to come along to help her make arrangements for the move and her mother denies her, saying that she has a party to attend. It is a quick interaction, but often Indian mothers, especially when they become grandmothers, are expected to drop everything to help their children. Instead, Nalini’s mother leaves Nalini, telling her maid to cook something as she leaves for a social event. It may seem like a negative interaction to some, however, I was ready to overlook the grandmother’s rudeness as she broke a stereotype with only a few words.
Devi’s paternal grandmother, Narmila (Ranjita Chakravarty), has a larger role as she moves to LA to live with Nalini and Devi. Often, Indian mother-in-laws are seen to have bad relationships with their daughter-in-laws, but Mohan’s mother is nothing but kind to Nalini. This sentiment struck me when Patti (what Devi calls her) yelled at Devi for speaking to Nalini terribly. The comment Devi made was about how Nalini was moving on too fast from Mohan. Patti could have easily taken Devi’s side since Nalini was moving on from her own son, but she stood by her late son’s wife. Additionally, Patti never gave Devi any of the typical Indian grandmother talks. Not once do I remember Patti telling Devi she couldn’t date Paxton because he wasn’t Indian or that she should start looking for a nice Indian boy soon. Actually, Patti often commented on Paxton’s looks and probably wanted him for herself! I appreciated Patti’s role — she added humor and was the second grandmother to dispel a stigma.
Kamala’s Professional Reckoning
In Season 2, Devi’s cousin, Kamala (Richa Moorjani), gets a job at a lab where she makes an important discovery leading to publication in a renowned journal. Her peers — the white men at the lab — don’t take her seriously, leaving her out of their activities and out of the paper. Prashant (Rushi Kota), Kamala’s boyfriend, helps her through it. Prashant’s support was a great way to show how men should act.
Kamala is highly intelligent and not once does Prashant feel intimidated by her. In fact, he is vital in helping Kamala realize her value. Ultimately, after Devi gives her the courage to, Kamala stands up to her boss and gets what she wants. I appreciated this storyline on Kamala because it not only diverted from Season 1’s dragged-out story on Kamala’s relationship, but it showcased the struggles of women of color who are trying to make it in the professional world. While Kalama’s solution of sneaking onto her boss’s computer was simply theatrical, her speech at the end about equal treatment as well as her own realization of self-worth was unexpected and inspirational. Kamala’s job struggles were helpful in two ways: One, they eliminated the idea that South Asian men should be and are intimidated by their highly functioning. Two, that all women of color should be aware of their self-worth and advocate for equality.
The Kamala & Prashant saga continues
While I appreciated the decrease in the Prashant and Kamala romantic scenes, the ending of the season repeated a mistake of Season 1. Prashant’s parents come to visit, seemingly, because Prashant is going to propose to Kamala. The pressure of Kamala having to decide if she wants to marry Prashant in front of his parents is unfair. Furthermore, Kamala is clearly uncomfortable with the idea, but no one sees that, causing her to panic and hide at Devi’s winter dance for the night. I was shocked that Nalini, who knows Kamala well and is quite progressive, couldn’t tell that Kamala wasn’t all in with the idea of Prashant proposing. It seemed as though everyone was so excited for the proposal that they forgot that Kamala’s feelings mattered too. It’s a typical portrayal of Indian culture where a woman is pressured by her ignorant family, both directly and indirectly, into marrying a man they have picked for her. I just thought that Kaling would at least allow Kamala to stand up for herself after her growth this season.
Side note, let’s get rid of Kamala’s FAKE Indian accent!
Nalini’s continued disapproval of her daughter’s romantic endeavors
I appreciate Nalini’s way of dealing with Devi’s various bad decisions (spying on her during a date to being suspended for exposing Aneesa’s secret). However, what I still don’t get is why Devi’s mother is STILL being portrayed as the typical South Asian parent who won’t let Devi and Paxton study in a room with the door closed. I get it, ok. I get that many parents, no matter their race, have different feelings about dating, especially when it comes to their high-school-aged children. But why does Kaling have to go along with the stereotype that Nalini doesn’t want her daughter to have a boyfriend because it means she won’t get into Princeton. The constant lecturing about boys and kicking doors open to platonic studying is overdone and one-dimensional; if Kaling wants to comment on anti-dating, make it more than just about academics.
Devi is still that nerdy, unathletic Indian kid
Aneesa’s appearance was pivotal in showing that not all South Asian kids are boring and nerdy, but Aneesa’s presence doesn’t mean that Devi still has to be shown as the typical Indian kid. I understand that different characters have different personalities and that Aneesa and Devi are meant to contrast each other. Some of Devi’s scenes are so dramatic that they are there to almost intentionally play into the stereotype. She is seen at the 24-hour relay, not being able to run a mile without a cramp and getting made fun of for it. She is seen being called an “academic beast” and being called on by the counselor to tutor a C-grade average student. The list goes on. Sure, Devi can be unathletic and intelligent, but Kaling has played into the dramatics of TV so much that she has forgotten that the goal of the show and Devi’s character is actually to uplift Indian-Americans. It always feels as though Devi’s actions are negative, and isn’t the main character supposed to inspire?
In conclusion, there is much to work on both with this show when it comes to the way Indian-Americans are perceived and portrayed — even by other Indian-Americans! But, growth is happening and that’s refreshing to see. Never Have I Ever has the potential to be a symbol of pride for the Indian American community.
Ayanna Gandhi is a rising senior at Castilleja School in Palo Alto, California. She has a deep interest in writing and reading but also enjoys politics, singing, and sports of all kinds.