Okay, I admit. I’m a sucker for high-school teenage drama as a movie or show genre. So, Mindy Kaling‘s Never Have I Ever should’ve been first on my list for sure. But as fate would have it, I had not as much as seen a trailer of the show. I started watching the show thinking it would be a movie and my 1 hour turned out to be several hours and endless crumbs of snacks on my torso. There were many things I loved about the show but there were some things that I hated.
Never Have I Ever revolves around Devi Vishwakumar (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) an Indian high-school teenager living in California, who lost her father to a heart attack. Her life is not easy, to say the least. She goes through every possible teenage drama/feeling that any other American teenager would with the added problems of struggling with her cultural identity. Devi is super smart but also has huge temper issues and is a part-time asshole, like many teenagers her age (Trust me, there are many instances you’d want to punch her in the face). The show tells the story of how Devi is trying to deal with loss, hormones, high-school, and her Indian mom.
Other than Priyanka Chopra whose name does pop up in the show 3 to 4 times, how many times have we seen an Indian woman lead an American TV/Web show? A teenage drama in fact? Never. This is the biggest win of the show. Hell, it’s what got me watching the show. The first scene shows Devi praying to an array of Hindu gods to thin the thick layer of hair on her hands. I know how many times I’ve prayed for that as a teenager. This act of praying to our gods so ceremoniously before an important day is just so Indian, it’s funny. Other than the fact that it features and revolves around an Indian character, the other characters in the show are also deliberately diverse and it’s a refreshing change from all the other shows that usually puts in one or 2 token characters for diversity.
This is one of the main reasons I love teenage drama. No matter what, you get sucked into it. Never Have I Ever scores really high on binge-worthiness for sure. Take everything you expect from an American teenage drama and add all the Indian drama and issues we faced as teenagers. Besides, Devi’s issues are multiplied by her inability to deal with her father’s loss. And of course, there is a high school hottie Paxton Hall-Yoshida that she’s crushing on so hard that she makes it a mission to have sex with him. ‘Nuff said.
Being an Indian who grew up in a different country myself, I’ve always wondered if any movie or show will be able to depict what we struggle with on a daily basis – cultural identity. Along with all the teenage drama, Devi also struggles with trying to be a part of her own culture. She, in fact, wants to be as American as possible to distance herself from her overtly and strictly Indian family. Starting from being a hard-core non-vegetarian in a vegetarian family to being forced to follow through with all the Indian rituals without knowing why it’s been done. I’ve been there and I’m glad it got represented, if not perfectly, at least it’s a start.
Whenever Indians or Indian community is represented in an American movie or sitcom, it’s how Hollywood has stereotyped us to be. Colourful, vibrant, super-smart, strict, sticklers, cringe-y Indian accents, nosey-aunties. Don’t get me wrong, we’re all of the above, but I expected a little more depth to the depiction of the Indian community in a story that revolves around an Indian girl. It just seemed like a white-washed version of the Indian community- starting with the notion that all Indians are super-smart, overly religious, and care about their status in the Indian community no matter how long they’ve been staying in a different country. I would like to believe the Indian community overseas has evolved over the years. It almost seems like a depiction of a community that Mindy might have experienced years ago.
Arranged marriage is a phenomenon that only pertains to the Indian community. The depiction of this in the show seems a bit dated. I’m not saying that the Indian community is over arranged marriages, but we’ve evolved. For example, I find it hard to believe that Kamala’s character who has flown all the way from India to the US finds it hard to convince her aunt who is a dermatologist that she would like to get a job first. Indian women in India or elsewhere who are a part of a workforce will always emphasize the importance of being financially independent. My mum’s a housewife who still lives abroad and that’s one of the first things she drilled into my brain. The whole arranged marriage scenario in the show seemed like it lacked proper research.
My single biggest problem that made me cringe throughout the show. Devi’s uber good look cousin, Kamala (played by Richa Moorjani), the golden girl that Devi’s mom asks her to look up to. Fair enough. But why did Kamala have to sound like Apu from the Simpsons? Can we have an actor who actually speaks Indian English rather than the caricature version that Hollywood portrays?
And how does a woman her age, qualifications and exposure in the year 2020 not know of American TV shows like Riverdale and many others? India might be backward, but we still have streaming services and high-speed (kinda) internet. There is a scene where she watches Riverdale and sees Betty stand up to her mother saying she loves Jughead and gets inspired to go back to her American boyfriend. I’m sorry Kamala, have you not watched every Bollywood movie ever? Did you need an American TV show to tell you to stand up for your love? Having said all that, Kamala’s character seemed a little caricature-ish to me, whether it was meant to be so, I wouldn’t know.
Having said all that, I know it’s way too much to expect so much from the first-ever American web show depicting Indian culture to delve into all our individual experiences of the same. Mindy may have tried to show what she went through as a teenager and that’s fine. All in all, the show is binge-worthy to the extent that I finished all the 10 episodes at a stretch. And am I waiting for the 2nd season? Hell yeah!