As a member of an underrepresented Indian ethnicity (a South Indian to be exact), I had low expectations for Netflix’s Never Have I Ever when it was first released. Trust me, I initially had bad assumptions about the show.
I grew up watching American TV shows, and I always felt that the equation of “Indian = Dressing up in colorful traditional attire + Bollywood dances + Stereotypical Accents” was used in such a way that the true essence, trials, and tribulations of being an Indian went out of focus. It became just another vague, black and white storyline that was repeated over and over. (Think Apu from The Simpsons or Raj from The Big Bang Theory.)
That was something I had expected when I watched the first episode of the series. I thought that this was going to be just another stereotypical Indian series that glorified white culture and made Indians look like they popped up from a Bollywood movie.
I was WRONG all along. This series resonated with me. I connected with the main character, Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), in so many ways. She’s someone who’s been grappling between serious things such as the sudden demise of her father during her orchestra performance; her abrupt lower-body paralysis and her recovery; her overtly strict (and sometimes annoying) mother, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan); the stakes of her friendship with Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and of course, her “too Indian to be an outsider and too white-washed to be an Indian” crisis. However, she also deals with frivolous things — her desire to have a boyfriend, growing bigger boobs, shedding her arm hair, getting drunk (and eventually getting injured by a coyote).
Ultimately, Devi’s issues are relatable to all teenagers alike, and especially a “been there, done that” teen like me. All of these story elements may be dissected into separate episodes, but they merge into a larger-than-life storyline, one that pulls at our heartstrings emotionally.
The Cast and Characters
For starters, let’s talk about the cast lineup. I was amazed that for once, the lead Indian role wasn’t played by a fair, Aishwarya Rai-lie prodigy who advocated for diversity while doing ads for fairness products. Instead, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is a star in her own right. I can’t imagine this series without her bubbly nature as she maneuvers through the dilemmas in her life either with or without her best friends’ help.
She wasn’t stereotyped. I’m sure a whole lot of keyboard warriors would be the first to comment on the fact that she’s just another star student with a sack of extracurriculars to bring forward in her college applications.
On the contrary, it DOES make her special. Her purpose in the series is to break the stereotypes and not to strengthen a stereotype. She had a slight scuffle with the college admission counselor (who’s supposedly her golden ticket to her dream school, Princeton) when he told that she’s just another hardworking Indian. This is the ultimate scene when the storyline delves deep into the mind of an Indian girl who wants to break the stereotypical views towards an Indian who aims high. I totally respect that.
The cast lineup is indeed diverse. Like EXTREMELY diverse.
With a (HOT) American-Japanese heartthrob in the form of Paxton Hall Yoshida (Darren Barnet) and besties like Eleanor and Fab that you could always count on, there’s a huge amount of inclusivity going on in this series. The Vishwakumars were represented by a South Indian ensemble, a quite rare feat, to be honest. I really thought the whole family would give me some Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gham vibes. Turns out, I was wrong….AGAIN! This family was just another family like yours and mine, and I’ve actually grown fond of them by the end of the first season.
Well, another remarkable character that I should mention over here is, of course, Devi’s cousin, Kamala (Richa Moorjani).
SPOILER ALERT: I never expected her to have a boyfriend (and neither did Devi). There was indeed tons of humor evoked by her presence and I truly appreciate that. It seemed very natural.
The Cultural Representation
In fact, everything seemed natural in this series with extremely accurate representation without the slightest bit of exaggeration. There were various instances when I was amazed by the fact that most scenes hit home. However, two of the most iconic scenes had to be the Ganesh puja scene and the language used at the Vishwakumars. Even when the slightest bit of Tamil words and phrases such as ennamma kannamma (What is it, dear?) and periappa (elder uncle) were used, I was happy because I’ve never heard the usage of native language especially, those of Dravidian origins (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam), in American TV shows.
Also, during the Ganesh puja scene, I’ve noticed the subtle spotlight on toxic aunties who’d take the pain of others as their pleasure. Being someone who’s faced this throughout my life, I connect with this sort of reference. It’s hard to break free from the expectations and clutches of an Indian household because, at the end of the day, there’s a lot at stake. The concept of being isolated by the cultural community for trivial matters such as marrying outside the caste or racial group is still VERY prevalent.
Nevertheless, Netflix’s Never Have I Ever is a true eye-opener to the film industry. It’s not only another teen drama, but it’s also a series full of emotions. Well, I don’t know about y’all but it has taught me plenty of things from dealing with the death of a loved one, letting bygones be bygones, forgiveness, and of course, the beauty of the existence of people who’ve always got your back, regardless.
Thank you, Mindy Kaling, Lang Fisher and the entire cast and crew of Never Have I Ever for this enjoyable and well-represented series. I’m really looking forward to Season 2! But damn, if only a series like this was screened in my early teens, I wouldn’t have been so concerned about my brown skin or my arm hair!
Featured Image Credit: Instagram