By Revathi Siva Kumar
Breaking through Asian stereotypes, Netflix series ‘Never Have I Ever’ puts an Indian American girl at center stage.
The very title, ‘Never have I ever’, probably reflects the amazement felt by its creators, over the unforeseen success of a Netflix series during the covid lockdown.
Its Indian American producer-director, Mindy Kaling, confesses that she was stunned. “I’m truly in shock,” wrote a rather taken aback actress, comedian and writer on Instagram.
“I can’t believe that our show about a complicated little Indian family has been seen by this many people,” she wrote still trying to come to terms with it. “The entire cast and crew are so grateful to you for making us #1 around the world on Netflix. We love you guys! Thank you!”
Based on Kaling’s own childhood while she was growing up in Boston, the romcom captures the life of an Indian high school student who gets paralyzed for three months after losing her father.
Written by ‘The Office’ alumni, it was co-created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher.
READ: Oscars 2020 to see desi girl Mindy Kaling as a presenter (January 31, 2020)
Devi is a dusky girl of South Indian origin from Sherman Oaks, California, who is trying to reinvent herself during her sophomore year after a terrible freshman year. The coming of age story of the 15-year-old unfolds through ten episodes.
Trying to emerge from her grief, Devi tries to change her social status, but finds a number of friends and relatives who do not share her pain or her attitude to the world but try to change her instead.
The show focuses on her Indian family, with vignettes of a middle class single mother of the ABCD (American born confused desi) girl, Devi Viswakumar.
The character is captured succinctly by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who portrays a nerdy-looking teenager, anxious and confused, yet with some quick bursts of clarity.
Her quest is mainly on winning a “hot” boyfriend even if he is seen as “dumb”.
After the death of her father Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy), wheelchair-bound, Devi has a trying time dealing with her mother Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) and a beautiful cousin, Kamala (Richa Moorjani), who stays with her.
Other characters in the series include her two best friends Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez). Her foil and high school crush is Paxton played by Darren Barnet.
An interesting backdrop is a narration by the legendary tennis player John McEnroe, while noted actor, writer, and musician Andy Samberg fills in for one episode.
The show flowed into the streaming service by April end receiving huge appreciation from viewers and critics alike with some calling it a “watershed moment for South Asian representation” in Hollywood and breaking through “Asian stereotypes”.
With a South Asian, dark brown girl as the protagonist, the series makes a break from the usual stereotypes of Asians giving only comic relief or playing out minor characters.
“And when you do relate to a character, they’re usually Caucasian and then you realize you’re living your life in the shadows as a person of color and you’re only able to see yourself through white characters, which is not totally okay either,” as Kaling put it in an interview with Variety.
READ: Mindy Kaling gets a 10-episode Netflix show (March 21, 2019)
Another important point is the openness to cultural sensitivity, which not only draws the Indian American crowd, but also the Caucasian audiences who are eager to imbibe a new and different kind of perspective.
Hence, it is not just the portrayal of another kind of person that is important, but the identity of the protagonist herself, deeply rooted in another world, a different religion, geography and language.
Devi’s anxieties, insecurities and worries are different from the mainstream crowd, so her presentation is unique too. ‘Never have I ever’, then, is all about an unexpected success story that never could have been anticipated.