The much anticipated Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher creation of a teenage Netflix show, with an Indian-American central character came out a couple of days back. The internet is divided on what to think about it. Some find the repeated Indian stereotypes annoying and the show unrepresentative. Some others thought it was able to capture the Indian-American teenage experience quite well, besides being a cute and fun watch. I belong to the second camp. I thoroughly enjoyed this show.
The fact of the matter is that there is no “one true Indian-American” experience. I agree that I am not an Indian-American to judge if this comes close to my experience. But if you take out all these expectations, you’ll realise that this is a show about a teenager dealing with grief and adolescence in a manner that is extremely cringe, as well as cute – as all good teenage shows are supposed to be. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan shines as Devi Vishwakumar, the hero of the show. She is spunky, ambitious, smart, and not a rebel without a cause. Her dad passed away quite recently and the show begins from there. The rest of the cast is amazing as well. Poorna Jagannathan as Devi’s mother is brilliant as the tough single mother now having to deal with a teenage daughter. Sendhil Ramamurthy, the wonderfully soft father, would have acted as the foil to the tough mother but has left the scene only to make recurring appearances in Devi’s dreams.
Devi’s closest friends are played wonderfully by Ramona Young and Lee Rodriguez, and her high school crush is played by Darren Barnet. Except for one important character played by Jaren Lewison, the show sticks by Netflix’s diverse representation mantra. They are all equally delightful and different, at first appearing as stereotype tropes from teenage shows, but adding layers to their characters with each episode. Niecy Nash as Devi’s therapist is also a wonderful addition to the show, providing a space to listen to and understand Devi’s actions. Richa Moorjani as Kamala is yet another comical and heartwarming character, the beautiful niece that Devi slowly grows to love.
A lot of the supposed Indian “stereotypes” and cliches play throughout the show – Devi’s mother is incredibly strict, she’s not allowed to date, there is an arranged marriage set-up for the niece, there is a Ganesh Puja, a scene where everyone is dressed up in sarees, a dance sequence even (which Devi in a manner that seems sort of meta, tries to make fun of but is easily shut down) and the evil aunties. I would argue that cliches are cliches for a reason and if they had tried to create a show without any of these characteristics, it would have also been called out for being a too American-ised portrayal. The accents don’t seem off-putting, they aren’t made fun of. You can distinctly see the difference between the first and second generation Indians. They might have missed out on certain particulars which I hadn’t noticed but the internet had.
Birds of Prey, despite being a decent entertainer failed to do well because of the high expectations on it to be the best portrayal of feminist superheroes. In the same vein, I think too much is expected of Never Have I Ever to be the best portrayal of the Indian-American experience. I think it achieved what it set out to do. Showcase teenagers dealing with grief, trying to deal with it in different ways with all of the cringe and adorableness of adolescence. The last episode had me weeping and smiling.