It is the first day of sophomore year and 15-year-old Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) kneels in front of the Hindu shrine in her home in Sherman Oaks of California. She prays to the gods for the few things every high schooler in the US wants - an attractive boyfriend, becoming attractive herself, and for others to find her cool. And as most subcontinent females inherently are, Devi also wished her arms would stop looking like the "floor of a frickin' barber shop". And as much as she desires a boyfriend, Devi's craving for one outweighs the need aspect. But not just any guy would do, obviously, as Devi has highschool standards to meet. Albeit half-witted, the boy must be a "stone-cold hottie" who could "rock" her all night long.
This is the opening scene of the first episode of the recently hyped Netflix series "Never Have I Ever" - Mindy Kaling's first foray into teenage experience. The show's plot revolves around Devi's highschool life and her desire to change her social status but friends, family, and feelings do not make it easy. But, along with all of these somewhat trivial teen issues, Devi also grapples with her Indian-American identity and figuring out what it all means to her. The show also focuses on Devi's devious ways of coping with past traumas, chief among which is her father's death.
It's an easy-breezy watch for anyone who likes a good teenage drama. Never Have I Ever is funny, sensitive and refreshing. The show left no coin unturned in efforts to drench the episodes with stereotypical, yet lighthearted, humor. But as someone belonging from the subcontinent I was left with a few nagging concerns, a few questions and some sighs while watching Never Have I Ever, as I continue with my efforts to contribute in the eradication of cultural stereotyping and appropriation in the media.
To begin with, I diagnosed one of the early plot devices as off-putting for diminishing ableism to a bizarre plotline. Episode 1 shows Devi briefly bound to a wheelchair for a seemingly psychosomatic reason, with no correlation with the rest of the plot. Three months later, however, Devi miraculously regains mobility in both of her legs, stands up and walks into school as if nothing ever happened. Like a cheap trope for sake of the plot only, Never Have I Ever used disability as a mere punchline for story's sake. And although the wheelchair storyline could have been portrayed in a more meaningful way, as opposed to being used as a cheap throwaway joke, Kaling hurled the chance out the window and ostracized disability.
Moreover, one of the scenes in an earlier episode shows how Devi has a fantasy about Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) - the guy she aspires to have as her boyfriend - where he tells Devi that she looks like Priyanka Chopra. While many Indian girls, and girls of other nationalities from the subcontinent, are told that they look like Priyanka Chopra, it is also just another way to say that we all look the same. While the comment did not sit right with me, it can get a rite of passage under circumstances of being a friendly jab at relatableness.
Critics all across the board have put Never Have I Ever on a pedestal for celebrating diversity, but what I seemed to have noticed was quite the opposite. The series has one entire episode dedicated to portraying the Indian diaspora where Devi's family can be seen celebrating the Hindu religious festival of Ganesh Puja. To keep things in check with the episode's telling, a clip of Durga Puja is thrown in a puja montage. While this does not count as appropriation, it does tell of a lazily put together job that ended up misrepresenting the religious festivity.
As the show progresses, the episodes unfold more Indian culture traits. Devi runs into a friend at the puja who confronts her about internalized racism by telling her that being Indian is cool and exposing the culture to prejudices reveals the insecurity in the person.
Representation, at times, can lead to indoctrinated nuances and subtle references that can pass by at the blink of an eye. For example, in episode 5, when Devi gets upset with her mother after a fight, the star character compares being grounded to servitude. "I'm like a straight-up indentured servant. My mom won't let me leave the house, except for school events," Devi said to her friends over lunch. This line, although meaningless to many, triggered many people online, especially those who came from a history of indentured servitude - a contract of labour in exchange for transportation to a new country, a small payment and land upon job completion, among other things. Individuals from Chinese, Indian, Irish, Tamil and Portugeuse communities were among the ones who left their home countries and were forcibly moved across the world throughout the 19th century.
Indentured servitude was exceedingly brutal and traumatic. Over 1 million people were taken from India during the 1830s and placed to work in sugar cane plantations across the Caribbean until the system was banned in 1917. Trivializing the term goes on to show how Kaling and her writer's room foreshadowed the traumatic history of systematic colonialism.
While having someone like Devi represent the subcontinent on a global streaming platform as big as Netflix, her experience and the show does not resonate with all Brown people. To a good extent, Devi is financially sheltered by her mother while living in a single-parent household - a quaint suburban house in California. She has her own therapist - something most South Asian children do not have given the stigma around mental health in the diaspora. Devi's privilege is further illustrated through snippets of her past life showing her parents talking about enrolling Devi in Ivy League schools. Regardless, the story still remains valid but it is clearly not applicable to a vast majority of the South Asian community, especially the immigrant diaspora.
Never Have I Ever has gotten a lot of backlash for "whitewashing" Devi's character, but growing up under the influence of Western culture can create a lot of contradictions, and Devi's age is when a person starts to confront their identity and who they want to be.
It was also interesting to see how the show portrayed the struggles of interreligious marriages in the subcontinent, especially in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. When the topic of Kamala's (Devi's careerist and the "good" cousin) arranged marriage came up, the show brought up how taboo it is for an Indian woman to marry a Muslim man - shunning one of the Hindu supporting characters who married a Muslim man, and got divorced, for doing so. However, the show heavily reinforces the idea around stereotypical Indian thinking that if you do not marry the man your parents choose, you will get divorced. And if you marry a Muslim, your family will abandon you. This portrayal went on to show how ridiculous some social ideologies of the subcontinent can be when it comes to matters of the heart, or decision making in general.
Kaling's brand of comedy - off-color and cringey - shines through in Never Have I Ever and while there are detractors, I could not overshadow the off-putting attempt at humor to compensate for the internalized discrimination. The series has uplifted a portion of the community and it is not necessary for it to tick every box to be enjoyable, which ultimately, it is.