Never have I ever really seen someone who looks like me on my TV screen.
It is no news that for years now both Bollywood and Hollywood have been anything but diverse, with things starting to change steadily only now. Priyanka Chopra played Mary Kom and FRIENDS pretended that people of colour never existed in New York City. It took ten years for Aisha Tyler to star as Charlie, who was a person of colour starring for more than 1 episode.
This is probably why most people in India have conditioned themselves to be happy with the consolation prizes, with the trope of Dil Ses and the Mary Koms and the 2 States made by and starring people who do not belong to that place or regions where these stories originally belong to.
Likewise, most South Asians in Hollywood have had to be content with smaller parts, screen time wise. Stereotypical roles with thick heavy accents (I’m looking at you Dopinder from Deadpool) and on most cases without even a second name.
That is why Mindy Kaling's Never Have I Ever has been a breath of fresh air for me. As a woman in my early 20s who lived her teenage dreams and nightmares not very long ago, I enjoyed watching a super-smart and confident Indian American teen navigate high-school. Don’t get me wrong, there isn’t a “push the nerd up against the locker" bully in the show but it does subtly show that being different is never easy.
Over the past few years, Hollywood has managed to somewhat make up for embarrassing cultural blights like Drew Barrymore's brown-face in Charlie's Angels to Ashton Kutcher's racist Popchips ad. The movies have been great (the live-action Aladdin for example) but TV has been even better.
The new wave of South Asian characters in popular shows have broken several South Asian stereotypes to become our favourites. Kelly Kapoor played by Mindy Kaling (also the co-creator of Never Have I Ever and every brown millenial’s idol) reinvented herself throughout the show to become the icon she is. Kaling became even better as Dr Mindy Lahiri in The Mindy Project where she played an OBGYN with layers and complexities to her character.
Kunal Nayyar as Raj Koothrapalli from The Big Bang Theory started out as a stereotype but ended up being loved for who he is. Aziz Ansari's Tom Haverford in Parks and Recreation had changed his original name because he never thought his original name would take him far in his life so he legally changed it. Ansari also wrote and created the Emmy-winning Master of None, a show based on his real-life experience as a South Asian actor in NYC. It was glorious and path-breaking, especially because of the Emmy. However, it should be mentioned that the show stopped after two seasons when Ansari was accused of sexual misconduct.
The recent best South Asian character before Devi Vishwakumar from Never Have I Ever was probably Tahani Al-Jamil from The Good Place. Jameela Jamil, immortalised the prim and proper British royalty who is actually not as perfect as she seems. All these characters walked so that Devi Vishwakumar could fly.
Never Have I Ever has everything your classic teenage rom-com should and it never pretends to be otherwise. However, what it doesn’t show at first glance is the complexities of teenage in a person's life. The show, via Devi, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, deals with death, disability, mental health, sexuality, trauma and everything else in a very non-patronising way.
However, probably the strongest suit of Never Have I Ever is that a desi kid talks openly talks about sex. She asks the most popular boy in school if he wants to have sex with her. She learns about it and is ready to explore. For the second most populous country, sex has still been a taboo in India, so it’s quite cool to see Devi be herself. Devi's best friends are a black girl, who struggles with her queer identity, and an Asian girl who struggles with abandonment issues. By the looks of it, Never Have I Ever looks like a bunch of teenagers talking about sex, but it is more than that. But even if it weren’t, what is so bad about three women in charge of their own bodies? I would say about time.
As a teenager I was bullied, like most of my classmates who were different. I struggled with my sexuality and I felt invisible because it only felt like people who could make it big in life were white. Hence, I wish a show like Never Have I Ever existed when I was a teen. Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone.
Devi isn’t like most of us. She is an Indian American Tamil girl from Southern California. There is nothing much in common between her and I, except for the fact that people usually tend to focus on the place we belong more than what we can bring to the table.
I’m also hoping Bollywood eventually takes a page out of Hollywood’s book and becomes more inclusive. Every time Bollywood casts a North Indian star-kid and darkens their skin or tries to make their eyes “smaller" with makeup, the industry slips back a decade. That’s why I am happy that the centre of Never Have I Ever is a South Indian family, because they are amazing and finally getting the recognition they deserve.
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