I stumbled upon an article on Never Have I Ever, the super-hot Netflix show about an Indian teenager struggling through grief, high school and her severely damaged social status. The article described the show as a huge leap for South Asian representation in Hollywood.
Even though I am not quite a Mindy Kaling fan (there, I said it), I was honestly intrigued. I am a sucker for high school dramas and rom-coms. When I was in high school, I barely managed to have a balance between eating, sleeping and studying, where as American high schoolers go to rave parties, have sex, solve crimes, get pregnant and still mange to go Ivy Leagues. Having a brown girl do all that is the closest I will ever feel to living the American dream. So, when Netflix suggested that I watch Never Have I Ever, I could do nothing but oblige.
The opening episode introduces us to the Vishwakumars, a Tamil (read Brahmin) Indian family from Sherman Oaks, California. We are introduced to Devi the protagonist – played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan – praying to slew of gods asking for popularity, success and a boyfriend – the very basic things you need to survive American high school.
Devi lives with her mother, Nalini – played by the very talented Poorna Jagannathan and her very beautiful cousin, Kamala (Richa Moorjani). The show starts on the first day of Devi’s sophomore year at school (equivalent to class 10 in India). Freshman year was beyond terrible for Devi due to the untimely death of her father, and the paralysis in her legs she suffered soon after. But Devi is now back on her feet and will do everything to change her social status with the help of her two best friends, Eleanor and Fabiola.
The first few episodes take a lot of time to establish the Indianness of Vishwakumars – making for the show’s biggest flaw. Instead of reinventing the template of writing South-Asian characters, the writers fall into the same mould they set out to break in the first place.
The show checks off every single stereotype associated with Indians – over-protective conservative parents, nerdy children, arranged marriages, mean aunties, and then a Ganesh Puja episode came across as a stock video of how the festival is celebrated. The scene is replete with elephants and also includes a shot of Durga Puja – an entirely different festival.
Considering the political climate in India, the whole episode came off as being tone deaf, even as it casually invokes Islamophobia. We see a woman eating alone – she’s been ostracised by the Indian community because she married an American-Muslim against her parents wishes, only to end up getting a divorce. Kamala, who is under tremendous pressure to settle down arranged marriage style, finds herself in a conversation with the woman. And instead of what you’d expect – talk such as ‘you should live your life on your own terms’ – Kamala is told that she ought to do what her family wants in order to sidestep of lifetime of being socially boycotted.
Even with its flaws, Never Have I Ever does draw you into the lives of Devi and her best friends Eleanor and Fabiola – who have interesting storylines of their own. The other two supporting characters – the school heart throb and Devi’s crush, Paxton Hall-Yoshida, and her arch nemesis, the lonely nerd Ben Gross – are extremely watchable too.
It is evident that the writers – Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher – had no trouble with writing Devi and her friends from high school. None of them are one-dimensional, which is a big feat to achieve in the high school genre which tends to overuse repetitive stock characters.
However, Kaling and Fisher appear quite inept at fleshing out Devi’s support system at home – her mother Nalini and her cousin Kamala. Even by the end, you’re still have not much of an understanding of who they are. Nalini, who lost her husband (Sendhil Ramamurthy), is a successful dermatologist and wants Devi to go to Princeton, but she also keeps pushing Kamala towards an arrange marriage “because that’s what Indian women do”.
Kamala is is torn between the life she wants for herself and the life her parents have imagined for her. She also very casually dumps her boyfriend after finding that the boy who has been selected for her isn’t that bad after all. With both characters, the exaggerated Indian accents did nothing to save the day. Even Indians in India don’t speak English like that. (My cousin went to the US for 10 days and the only thing he brought back was bars of Trader Joes Chocolate and an American accent.)
The last two episodes explore the tensions between Devi and her mother Nalini, and finally addresses Devi’s grief which had been the underlying factor behind much of her unexplained behaviour. We also finally get to meet the narrator of the show, John McEnroe, who makes an appearance in the last episode.
Is Never Have I Ever watchable? Definitely. But its USP is not its South-Asian storyline.
Bhawna Jaimini is an architect and activist-in-making. She works closely with the residents of some of the most marginalised neighbourhoods to improve their built environment.
Featured image credit: Netflix