Creator: Mindy Kaling, Lang Fisher
Director: Tristram Shapeero, Kabir Akhtar
Writer: Lang Fisher, Mindy Kaling, Justin Noble
Cast: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Poorna Jagannathan, Richa Shukla, Ramona Young, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Lee Rodriguez, Darren Barnet, Jaren Lewison
Streaming Platform: Netflix
Never Have I Ever is a rather curious creature. Spanning 10 episodes, half an hour each, it is fun, yes. But this was not a show meant to be just fun. With Mindy Kaling on the front seat, it took with it the additional responsibility of representation; there are brown women, queer identities, and single parents in the midst. Which is why this show’s embracing of the stereotype, and infusing heft and magic within it, as opposed to shattering it entirely feels odd. When an Indian character says dialogues like “I found a Bollywood movie about a princess who falls in love for a lowly street sweeper. It’s only 7 hours long” unironically, I wondered who the audience of the show was.
The show is about Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in an incredibly assured, and restrained debut) entering sophomore year (Grade 10) of high school, having just lost her father during her harp recital, and spending the following months in a wheel-chair by a trauma-induced handicap. With her two bosom-buddies Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez, who grows into her lesbian-hood beautifully), and Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young whose thespian dreams leak onto her wardrobe), she walks into class, eyes full of hope; this year they’ll finally get boyfriends, have sex, and become less dispensable in the social ladder.
This Young-Adult (YA) template, one that heavily relies on tick-boxes, gets the YA treatment- the hot but unintelligent sportsman (this time a Japanese-American or American-Japanese) that the geek falls for, the underdog getting a taste of popularity only to blow off both her friends and her past, while her friends grapple with their future- their sexuality, their ambition, their parents. It’s generic, but there’s never a dull moment here.
Devi’s mother (Poorna Jagannathan in a heart-wrenching role that veers uneasily between stereotype and stated), like most mothers, is both the vamp and the champ of the story- pushing Devi to be better while also pushing her slowly off a cliff. The scenes involving her and her now-deceased husband (Sendhil Ramamurthy) hurt the most — when he rides by the California windswept beach, on a Moped with her, startled, holding on behind him. The mourning never stops. She still wears the taali, a sign of marriage. They still haven’t dispersed his ashes. Devi still hallucinates about him. Life doesn’t stop when the living die; it lingers till its absence is made peace with.
There is also Devi’s cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) who is quite confusing as a character. She pursues PhD to learn as much as to delay the prospects of marriage, falls in love, but only to jilt the lover when faced with the possibility of loving a more beautiful Indian man. She uses Riverdale to make life choices. Her accent, like those of so many Indians on this show, reeks of the Apu hangover. There is a moment when a Stanford student comes back to visit, saying he now wants to be proud of his Indian culture, and not dismissive of it. But he says this as he is surrounded by embodied stereotypes of culture- the aunties and the self-righteous rich Indian migrant. How do I take him seriously? (This when Devi is wearing her first silk half-sari, something she finds deeply uncomfortable, but something she is told is deeply Indian. What does it then mean to be Indian?)
There was an episode where the narrator (John McEnroe and Andy Samberg- curious choices, but you make peace with it) introduces the audience to Ganesh Chaturthi. Images of India flood the screen (including one of … Durga Pooja) to the voiceover explaining the festival through the colour and chaos. I understood instantly, this is a show for white people, and thus needed to build the stereotypes through which white people have consumed Indian culture into flesh and blood. This attitude is quite apparent in the accents as much as in the subtitling. When they converse in Tamil, the subtitles show “Speaks In Hindi”.
This irked, if not incensed, because this show in a sense is a celebration for people of colour by people of colour. By flipping the gaze only somewhat, the fun of watching it as a brown person dissipates quickly. But there’s fun to be had nonetheless, the generic YA high school drama kind. This reminded me what writer Arundhati Roy said of how her editor would coax her to simplify Indian references so that the Western reader would understand it better. She refused, citing that if as Indian readers we had to acclimate to Western concepts alien to us, like rosy cheeks, freeways and supper by using the dictionary, why shouldn’t they do the same? It was an interesting idea. But clearly, not one with much currency.