‘Never Have I Ever’ Been Represented in Mainstream Media – Growing up Tamil in a Western World
The complicated life of a modern-day first generation Indian American teenage girl, inspired by Mindy Kaling’s own childhood.
Created By: Mindy Kaling, Lang Fisher
Cast: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, Poorna Jagannathan, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Jaren Lewison, Darren Barnett
Country: United States
Language: English, Tamil
Runtime: Under 30 minutes per episode
As a Tamil girl, I have been craving mainstream representation for years. All of the allotted Indian representation is given to the Hindi language and its communities, which is why Bollywood is synonymous with being Indian. Hence, you can imagine my excitement when I heard of a new Netflix series called Never Have I Ever (NHIE). Tamil representation on an international scale at last!
NHIE is your typical highschool angst rom-com which follows Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and her understandable obsession to be infinitely cooler. Her father, Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy), suffers a heart attack and passes on in front of Devi’s entire school, leaving her mum, Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) a widow. Devi then suffers from trauma-induced paralysis which lasts three months. Now, Devi is adamant to reinvent herself and shake off the pitiful eyes in school.
It was surreal for me to hear Tamil words on an American Netflix series. Mindy Kaling is the creator, executive producer and writer for the series who you would probably know best from The Office, The Mindy Project or Ocean’s 8. She tastefully sprinkles Tamil words of endearment and slang throughout the series that gradually exposes the audience to the language without confusing them.
Devi speaks in a strong American accent throughout the film which retains familiarity and elevates her relatability to the mainstream (mostly teenage) audience. However, her mother Nalini and cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) speak with an Indian accent that is entirely believable and nowhere near mockery – a fresh change to the representation of the Indian accent, which has always been used as comedy or to lazily set-up identity.
Speaking of fresh change, NHIE’s main cast are three dynamite women. The Indian culture, in its entirety, is notorious for its lack of gender equality and this is especially jarring in the media. Kaling broke the boundaries and introduced the trio of Devi, Nalini and Kamala. Each character has sufficient scope to show different phases and its struggles, that a Tamil female goes through. From thick body hair to arranged marriages to overbearing male relatives, the essence of being Indian (and in this case, in the diaspora) is accurately captured.
Mohan’s death is a largely recurring theme in the show that is explored in several facets. Being the main character, Devi has the most interaction with his death, having hallucinations of her father. Her stubbornness to suppress her grief manifests itself as a bunch of deliberately self-sabotaging decisions that is more than just teenage angst.
Devi’s relationship with Nalini is severely strained without Mohan to buffer and manage it. On the other hand, Nalini struggles with being a new single parent to a rebellious teenger. This multi-layered, true-to-life portrayal of death and recovery is a large part of NHIE. It is a treat to see the nuggets of posthumous recollections of Mohan that the two women have. His character significantly grew on me, making me wish I saw more of him, a yearning that I share with Devi and Nalini.
Of course, the main story meanders through the complexities of highschool for a brown teen. Kaling has always been extremely vocal about South Asian representation and successfully draws on her experiences to write an organic screenplay for the highschool backdrop of the series. In fact, the creators of the show took it one step further to deliberately ensure everyone had representation.
From the part Japanese school hottie to the mixed gay kid to the Asian theatre enthusiast, diversity is one area that NHIE does not fall short at. It makes a genuine effort at inclusivity, without riddling in stereotypes. The characters just happen to be – organic in the melting pot of America.
True to any coming-of-age plot, there is great emphasis on the progress and growth of these characters. There is enough room for subplots and an exploration of their worlds too, which makes for a holistic viewing of the highschool climate and its intricate social webs. Devi goes through a rollercoaster of emotions, to say the least, but is set up to have the potential to come out on top – with redemption being at the background of all the themes, but still impactful, nonetheless.
However, Devi’s teenage angst and rebelliousness was a tad too milked as she borders on being unlikeable several times during the series. While I understand the intention of showing an archetypal teenager, Devi treads dangerously close to being just plain difficult. Thankfully, NHIE invokes just enough empathy, by highlighting the magnitude of her loss, to keep her in our good graces.
As the series progresses, it does have some cliche and cringey moments that are heavy-handed with its delivery of Indian culture. The scenes where the women attend the Ganesh Pooja (annual prayer for a Hindu deity), amongst others, is almost a caricature of the idiosyncrasies that are uniquely Indian – with appallingly insensitive Aunties and eccentric priests.
I should also mention that the majority of the series is narrated by John McEnroe who is an American veteran tennis player infamously known for his confrontational behaviour towards match officials. Let’s just say his voice is far from soothing. Additionally, one of the episodes is narrated by Andy Samberg. Both these choices did not add any value to the storytelling quality and felt quite gimmicky, as if to throw “famous” names in there for the sake of it.
What kept me hooked through the cringe and ear-grating narration was the performance of the actors. Each of them executed their roles with ease, playing off each other. Ramakrishnan plays Devi with an authenticity that comes from her Tamil Sri Lankan descent, having grown up in Ontario. She fits the role perfectly and cannot be faulted for her performance with moments of vulnerability and pensive reflection – rare, but genuine.
The icing on the cake for NHIE is the performance of Jagannathan as Nalini. The signature Indian mother look of hell which amalgamates love and fury at the same time was one of the many nuances that she nailed unsurprisingly with the repertoire of film and TV appearances under her belt. Her controlled portrayal of grief, resentment and desperation reached my heart, no questions asked. I must mention how she wears her Thaali (Tamil nuptial chain) with pride throughout the series, although I wish the creators worked in a scene to explain its significance to the mainstream audience.
NHIE is in no way a perfect show, along the same vein of other Netflix teenage rom-coms like To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before.The show is tasked with the enormous responsibility of presenting an accurate Tamil representation while remaining extremely relatable to the Western majority. Despite its shortcomings, it does a good job and makes for a light-hearted watch.
Ultimately, NHIE is a much-needed step in the right direction. Through my years of consuming content, I never had the audacity to expect an accurate depiction of my experiences on screen, being a minority. I was always used to taking mainstream content and repackaging it to fit my experiences as a Tamil Indian. For that reason alone, NHIE is a win for me and many others around the world.
Never Have I Ever is now streaming on Netflix here.
Catch the trailer to the series below.
Image Credits: Never Have I Ever Stills/ Netflix
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