Updated: Jan 16
The saying “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself” still holds true when it comes to POC stories in the film industry. As Hollywood is slowly embracing the idea of ‘diversity’ in their films as more than a simple quota to be filled, there is still one demographic that seems to be consistently left in the dust – South Asian women.
In April 2019, Mindy Kaling posted an announcement to social media calling out for fresh new South Asian talent for her upcoming semi-biographical TV Show ‘Never Have I Ever’. Out of 15,000 applicants, Tamil-Canadian Maitrevi Ramakrishnan succeeded in getting the role of Devi Vishwakumar. Devi is a young Indian-American girl living in Southern California, struggling to come to terms with her new life after the sudden death of her father whilst also trying to fit in in high school.
After its much-publicised open casting call, everyone was waiting with bated breath to see how the show would be executed. Would it be good? Would Mindy Kaling and her writers unintentionally reinforce harmful stereotypes? Upon its release in April of 2020, the show received a very mixed reception. On the one hand, it didn’t seem to perpetuate the usual South Asian stereotypes that are played for laughs in Hollywood, but on the other hand it wasn’t a show that was any different from Netflix’s usual coming-of-age teen comedies. Sure, it was a refreshing change to see a South Asian woman in the lead of a Netflix TV Show, but there was a part of me that wanted it to not fall into that trap of cringe-worthy teen stories filled with badly misunderstood slang and out of place pandering pop culture references (*cough* “beauty of Priyanka Chopra” *cough*). Not to mention, the slight dig at interfaith South Asian marriages. In other words, ‘Never Have I Ever’ is almost there.
However, I do believe it deserves high praise for its ability to capture Devi’s struggle with her cultural identity. High school is hard enough without having to be one of the few South Asian kids at school, and Devi’s continued embarrassment is obvious when confronted by people outside of her inner circle of friends. She doesn’t want to be defined as ‘the Indian kid’, she just wants to be like everyone else and have fun with her friends (with her mother’s permission), get a boyfriend (without her mother knowing), get into an Ivy League school (obviously) and look hot while doing it. Like many of us at that age, we put up with our family’s cultural eccentricities because we’re under their roof (and have a deep respect for a Desi parent’s ability to discipline their kids). However, just like a friend of Devi’s, only once we leave home for the first time for University do we release what we were missing, and we start rushing to grab hold of our slowly dying cultural roots.
All in all, ‘Never Have I Ever’ is an entertaining show. It captures the awkward feeling many of us get in the diaspora whilst also exploring the general awkwardness that comes with being a teenager. Will I watch it more than once? Probably not. Should its apparent success be used as a springboard for more high quality and binge-worthy shows featuring Female South Asian leads in the future? Definitely. After all, a win for one POC demographic is still a win for other POC stories too.
‘Never Have I Ever’ Season 1 is available to watch on Netflix