Review of Mindy Kaling’s “Never Have I Ever”

by Isha Karim (’22) | May 19, 2020

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Usually, I’m all for kitschy shows, the kind that are unexplored and often unheard. Nevertheless, sometimes I cave to my indulgences for a cheesy rom-com that I can stare blankly at. That meant that Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, Mindy Kaling’s first foray into the Indian-American teenage experience, was in my wheelhouse. In the mix is a ridiculously hot boy with a penchant for giving out mixed signals and a nerdy nemesis who is both a source of frustration and solace. You can sense the love triangle coming from a mile away. With angst and charisma, Devi Vishwakumar, played by Netflix newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, is all chutzpah: She’s known for impeccable grades, a terrible temper, and, to put it bluntly, her dead dad. Not only is she surrounded by a vibrant cultural life, she also struggles, at times, to understand it.

From the onset, Kaling made one thing clear: striving for authenticity was the show’s raison d’être. A year later, those expectations come to call in the fourth installation of Never Have I Ever, the 10-part Netflix series Kaling co-created with writer Lang Fisher, which makes a train-wreck out of representation, flattening cultural specificities into recognizable theatrics. The 30-minute affair revolves around a Ganesh Puja celebration that brings together the neighborhood Indian, specifically Hindu, diaspora. It opens with an out-of-place Bollywood tune as we see Devi being forced into wearing an uncomfortable silk saree. By now, its presence is in and of itself a giveaway that a show isn’t actually invested in depicting India, just in summarizing it. Instead, the focus is squarely on carrying out a performance of Indianness – there is talk of a cursed, divorced Hindu woman socially ostracized for marrying a Muslim man, a Bollywood dance troupe, and a Hindu priest named Raj who appears out of nowhere. The exaggeration of religion and devotion on display feels unnecessary, mainly because the episode has very little to say about either, coming across as nothing more than an opportunity to showcase Hindu culture. To that end, the problem is that Never Have I Ever is a show that employs these broad strokes without much thought. Oftentimes, the show is most enjoyable when it forgets its Indian roots and plays out just like any other teen coming-of-age storyline: a nerdy, popularity-obsessed teenager vying for a hot guy who eventually loses out to a nerdy opponent.

In that sense, none of Devi’s dilemmas truly depend on her identity. Her Indian-ness is devoid of a purpose, serving as an accessory that she can discard at convenience. But the true extent of Never Have I Ever’s shortcomings in depicting what it truly means to be Indian-American in a country that is becoming more and more inhospitable to diversity, is in the character of Kamala, Devi’s “fresh off the boat” cousin from India. Kaling envisions Kamala (Richa Moorjani), who Devi labels as “too Indian” in the opening minutes, as a ditzy Indian beauty, complete with an exaggerated accent and caricatured facial expressions. The accent gets even more grating, and the mannerisms, unbearably caricaturish when Moorjani nods her head way too often as comedic relief and frequently plasters on a clueless expression as if she’s a cartoon and not a person.

Kaling’s brand of comedy, while off-color and cringey, is a trope that does have its own drawbacks, especially with such a diverse cast. We get moments like Devi imagining Paxton saying she “has the beauty of Priyanka Chopra” or discussing her fantasy boyfriend as a “stone-cold hottie” or how chores make her feel like an “indentured servant.” These things, and other (mostly cultural) parts of the show initially turned me off. It took me some time to acknowledge that — being a young Indian-American woman and watching a show about a young Indian-American woman — my expectations for Never Have I Ever were outrageously high. Kaling, a veteran of the film industry and an Indian-American herself, anticipated this: “What I realized is that because we don’t have a lot of different shows depicting Hindu teenagers praying, it offends people when it’s not exactly the way that it was for them,” she told the New York Times. “I’m still trying to figure out a way to accept that criticism. Those people who watch the show, particularly young Indian-American women, are the people that I want to like it the most. And they’re the ones that are going to be the toughest on me.”

While the viewing experience was cathartic, as an Indian American teenager myself, I found myself realizing that something didn’t quite fit right throughout the show. Never Have I Ever is a fun watch, yet misguided in its attempt to portray the Indian American experience. It relies on stereotypes of the traditional and the modern, oftentimes championing the former as the definition of Indians today. This insistence on a black and white interpretation of a diverse culture regurgitates a rigid definition of Indian American that our society is already comfortable identifying. This is, in a way, the ultimate Never Have I Ever problem: What good is demanding a pat on the back for writing a show about Indian Americans if you’re not even willing to change the narrative?

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