"Never Have I Ever"...Seen Myself on TV
By Meenasarani Linde MuruganMay 28, 2020
Teenage feelings are more proximate now. I have been living in my parents’ house amidst relics of my youth since September 2019 to help take care of my mother while I’m on sabbatical. I was supposed to move back to New York this spring to find a new place, but obviously that isn’t happening for a whole host of reasons. Catching myself in a strong and surprising laugh is a nice distraction from the daily existentialism; it’s time to return to the awkward comforts of the teen genre.
“Kamala does nothing and gets a full husband in the mail. Meanwhile, I’m trying to trick a gay guy into going to Johnny Rockets with me.” These lines delivered by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan as Devi Vishwakumar in the Netflix series Never Have I Ever (2020) almost made me do a spit-take. I was laughing in recognition at creator Mindy Kaling’s signature brand of comic desperation; I was laughing at the impeccable timing and frustration of Ramakrishnan; and I was laughing as I remembered some of my own ill-fated teen attempts at heteronormativity — sometimes I was Devi, other times the gay guy — Jonah (Dino Petrera) — being tricked. Either way, it definitely involved a Johnny Rockets.
Never Have I Ever is in conversation with the all-too-common tropes and conventions of teen films and television, but it's also deeply in conversation with a set of tropes and conventions that are relatively uncommon in U.S. popular media. Never Have I Ever is an American show about a South Asian family, and it plays fast and loose with religion, nationality, race, caste, and diasporic identity in ways that can be frustrating as well as funny.
Kaling and Lang Fisher’s tightly constructed ten episodes are upbeat while also dealing with subjects like death, grief, anger, sexuality, and diaspora. One of the ways it doesn’t get mired in the deep tragedy of life is the incongruous use of tennis-player John McEnroe as voice-over narrator for a show that’s largely written from Devi’s perspective. The broader story world includes Devi’s mother Nalini (Poorna Jaganathan), cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani), and friends Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez). Netflix now features several teen shows with racially diverse casts that blend comedy and drama, such as Sex Education (2019-Present) and On My Block (2018-Present). Like those two series, Never Have I Ever (NHIE)’s mix of teen and adult comedy and drama is indebted to older shows about lonely misfits like My So Called Life (ABC, 1994-1995) and Freaks and Geeks (NBC, 1999-2000). Fabiola having her preciously named robot Gears Bronson articulate what she is afraid to say aloud — I’m gay — echoes scenes of Bill Haverchuck or Neal Schweiber on Freaks and Geeks coping with the alienation and loneliness of adolescence by watching Garry Shandling on TV or talking to a dummy named Morty.
More recently, some films and television have shifted to focusing on Asian American girls figuring out desire and sex in middle-class environments. The To All the Boys films (Netflix, 2018, 2020), feature one of the most enchanting teen girl bedrooms, an ideal space from which to craft the most heartfelt love letters on beautiful stationery. Pen15 (Hulu, 2019), set in 2000, is more of a cringe-comedy take on middle school, crushes, and sexual desire. Created by two of its stars — Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle — as well as Sam Zvibleman, much of the discomfort comes from the show’s frankness about teenage masturbation coupled with its thirtysomething stars playing their parts alongside a cast of actual 13-year-olds.
In Never Have I Ever, the teen comedy romance plot pushes forward with predictable buoyancy and is counterposed with ugly — and at times rather specific — thoughts about grief, jealousy, and femininity. While Devi is quick to act in solving (and creating) relationship problems, the teen pathos about feeling unattractive allows for a diving into some of the thorniness of South Asian femininity. In a moment of vulnerability — that is later revealed to be a dream — she cries to her deceased father and asks, “Dad, am I ugly?” In disbelief, her father Mohan (played by the sweetest Sendhil Ramamurthy), looks at her with tenderness stating “You’re the most beautiful girl in the world.” She rolls her eyes and says “No. Kamala’s beautiful.” While Mohan advises her to stand up to her nemesis Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison), her initial question to her father and comparison to Kamala is not just about bullying but also about an understanding of South Asian feminine beauty norms.
In casting her show, Kaling posted an open call on call on social media. Nearly 15,000 people applied for the part. While it is evident throughout the show that Ramakrishnan is adept with comedy, Kaling noted in an interview with Priya Arora at the New York Times, “I think about colorism a lot, and I liked that she wasn't like this red-haired, green-eyed, pale-skinned Indian girl. I liked that she looked a little bit more like someone that would be in my family.” Casting Ramakrishnan in this teen series, allows Kaling to revisit a scene from The Mindy Project (Fox, 2012-2015; Hulu 2015-2017), where Mindy reacts in a kind of familiar exasperation when finding out that a guy she went out with is now dating a younger woman named Geeta (also played by Moorjani). “You’ve got to be kidding me…” Mindy utters under her breath when Geeta slinks her arms around her boyfriend Dennis (Ed Helms). They realize they both went to Princeton, though obviously not at the same time. “If you don’t mind me asking, are you Indian?” Geeta asks. Mindy says “Yeah, big-time,” as she looks away trying to think how to get out of this conversation. Geeta affirmatively responds, “Love to see other brown girls,” as she taps her fist on her heart. Annoyed as hell, Mindy cuts back, “Not that hard. There are literally billions of us.” The rest of the episode makes the issue less about the age difference between the two and more about Mindy being “a mess,” while someone like Geeta is ready to settle down. What is not addressed is the obvious visual difference between the two women in terms of skin color and body type, and how that maps onto who feels included by categories such as “Indian” and “brown girl.”
While The Mindy Project received criticism about having a protagonist that was so enmeshed in and enamored of a totally white world, NHEI allows us to dip into these ugly avoided feelings within the space of the Indian-Tamil American family home, as comforting and confining as it may feel. Am I ugly? Am I unlovable? Am I unfuckable? Will no one desire me because I don’t look like that? These aren’t pretty questions. Where is the concern for other people’s feelings and interiority? Where is the empathy for Kamala? All people are distilled into caricatures representing what one has or doesn’t have, what one wants or doesn’t want. As a mindset it’s not particularly sophisticated or generous of spirit. But that’s not the point. It sucks being a teenager sometimes. Feeling everything all at once can be overwhelming and the show doesn’t shy away from some hard aspects of that. Familial traumas vie with uninspired sexual fantasies about crushes and fears of your friends abandoning you. Rereading my high school diary confirms as much to me, along with similar laments about being aware of how unattractive I was in my predominantly white school and quickly switching to ways to manage that shitty feeling with a projection of confidence. I too wore a skirt and heels once and skinned my knee and cried about how much I hated it all.
I was also aware that there were certain versions of South Asian femininity that were widely considered beautiful; I was not one of those. Devi has a similar moment of categorizing and casting herself as other when she attends a Ganesh Puja celebration hosted by the Southern California Hindu Association at her high school. Watching a group of beautiful young women decked out in their finest pavadai thavanis (half saris) do a Bollywood dance to “Nagada Sang Dhol Baje,” Devi makes an awkward comment to another girl her age about how dorky these girls would look in any other space. She is quickly shut down by “Preethi’s sister”; the group was in the Macy’s Day Parade. It is Bollywood, the Hindi-language film industry, and that version of femininity which is seized upon as the most accepted way to be beautiful and Indian, and for Devi this is represented by women like Preethi and Kamala. She isn’t exactly wrong either. For decades, the US cultural acceptance of South Asians was assumed to follow the global dominance of Bollywood. In particular, stars like Aishwarya Rai or Priyanka Chopra, both Miss World winners, literally internationally acclaimed for their beauty, were thought to usher changes in representation in Hollywood for South Asians. However, as Asha Rangappa noted in response to Indian-American Nina Davaluri being crowned Miss America in 2013, the white racist and xenophobic backlash to Davaluri being Miss America was more complicated. “Davuluri is following in the footsteps of other darker-skinned Indian women who have been recognized in America for their talent and beauty, like The Office’s Mindy Kaling or ER’s Parminder Nagra — women who’d never get a second glance in India.” While Davaluri’s title was significant in its own right, it is Kaling and not a Bollywood star that has been at the forefront of mainstream South Asian representation.
Kaling and Lang have created a story world different from The Mindy Project, in which Kaling was mostly surrounded by white men and one woman of color. In her career, Kaling has clearly endeavored to increase the representation of South Asian families, but her attempts have ranged from the center to the margins. Her actual parents were part of the “Diwali” episode she wrote for The Office (NBC, 2005-2013), for instance. The Lahiri family, particularly her brother Rishi (Utkarsh Ambudkar), had appearances throughout The Mindy Project and seemed somewhat inspired by her New England upbringing as well as that of Bengali Indian American writer Jhumpa Lahiri. Champions (NBC, 2018) relies on an absurd sitcom scenario to throw together a white bachelor gym owner and his newly revealed 15-year-old Indian American gay son Michael Prashant Patel (Josie Totah). A few episodes featured appearances by Kaling as Michael’s mother and Hasan Minhaj as his uncle. Minhaj in particular excels at playing a charming but deeply unreliable South Asian uncle. While Late Night (2019, Dir. Nisha Ganatra), which Kaling wrote and starred in, addresses sexism and racism in the television writers’ room; a larger grounding of her protagonist’s context is absent. In her most recent work, Four Weddings and a Funeral (Hulu, 2019), which she executive produced, the highlights of the series revolve around its Pakistani-British Muslim characters living in the London borough of Hounslow, because of the working-class family and neighborhood dynamics. While Kaling’s experience informs a lot of Never Have I Ever, she recognizes the limitations of this specificity. “I'd like to have a nice, long life so that I can tell enough stories with enough different kinds characters -- Indian, Pakistani, Muslim, etc. -- to show that there's lots of different kinds of ways to be Desi.” While she’s historically ben resistant to taking on the mantle of promoting South Asian representation, this show represents a new focus for Kaling.
It’s unfortunate, then, that the moment when Kaling’s work finally articulates some of her own experience, especially Indian Tamil specificity, it comes tied to the most basic form of Brahminical oppression. Within the first minutes of the show it is clear that Hinduism and blessings by Hindu priests are key to the Vishwakumar family. For folks keyed into how caste is baked into all aspects of life in South Asia and throughout the diaspora, from the characters’ last name to their vegetarianism, you know that these characters are Brahmins: the academic, cultural, and economic elites of Indian society. Dalit rights activist and writer Thenmozhi Soundararajan notes, “Indian upper caste networks of power go unchecked, reifying Brahmin domination of the South Asian diaspora.” This power, of course, extends to politics as Nalini jokes that she could never send their “community spiritual leader” Pandit Rajakrishnan (Anjul Nigam), also a Brahmin, home in an Uber, “What’s next, Prime Minister Modi on Postmates?”
The joke falls flat though if you are aware of how Prime Minister Narendra Modi was responsible for a Hindu nationalist genocide against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 and is currently propagating another genocide against Muslims, Dalits, and migrants on mass in the wake of the passing of the Citizenship Ammendment Act (CAA) last December. This situation has only been exacerbated by the global pandemic. To be so flippant demonstrates how many in the diaspora, especially Brahmins, are invested in his party staying in power. As an Indian Tamil myself, her joke is particularly odd as historically Modi has held little regard with wide swaths of Tamil voters, something his North Indian Hindi-speaking party is trying to address as it incorporates more Tamil culture into its vision of Hindu nationalism. Furthering Modi’s consolidation of power has been the enlisting of the diaspora. Rashmee Kumar notes, “For decades, a network of American groups affiliated with Hindu nationalist organizations in India has embedded itself in the diaspora by holding cultural and religious events, lobbying Congress, contributing to political campaigns, and acting as a mouthpiece for Modi.” The Ganesh Puja in “...Felt Super Indian,” may appear to be just an experience of Hindu culture, like Kaling’s “Diwali” episode; it was something she wanted to capture from her youth. However, to many non-Hindu South Asians it also represents the kinds of seemingly benign “cultural” events that obscure the oppressive regimes and hierarchies of Modi and Savarna Hindus (not only Brahmins but all “caste-Hindus”).
Nalini has another moment that’s more explicitly awful. Earlier in the same episode, we witness our trio of Devi, Kamala, and Nalini trying to emerge unscathed from a barrage of judgmental and unsupportive aunties, who now pity these outsiders because of Mohan’s death. Still, in a desperate grasp to maintain whatever standing she has, Nalini goes full Islamophobic auntie as she tells Kamala not to sit next to a single woman who married an American Muslim man. These comments are left unvarnished for us. It’s a difficult identification to occupy, as it is a hateful thing to say being said by a character we have largely liked up until this point. Ultimately, we are meant to care for this intergenerational trio as they are stumbling through a mess of conflicting feelings and responsibilities all structured by the unspoken patriarchy of the Hindu Indian diaspora. However, the episode leaves some space to see the celebration as both cultural pride as well as stifling elitism, with people throwing around ivy league schools and luxury car brands — typical Hindu Brahmin territory. It is Devi, the character who feels the most “not Indian,” that is the only one to even make a passing non-hateful reference to India’s religious diversity, as she explains to her crush, “you know, there are Muslim Indians, Sikh Indians, Jains.”
Even in its heterogeneity, it is Indian culture that woefully dominates discussions of South Asian representation. This is to the detriment of the people and culture from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Kashmir, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and the Tamil diaspora. Furthermore when we talk about the long history of the South Asian diaspora, much more emphasis is given to the more recent migrations of South Asians to the US, UK, and Canada as opposed to nations like Fiji, Guyana, Malaysia, South Africa, and Trinidad and Tobago, among others. While Kaling is Indian-Tamil and Bengali, Ramakrishnan, like many Tamil-Canadians “comes from a family that “escaped war in Sri Lanka and arrived in Canada as refugees. We typically refuse to identify as Sri Lankan because that would mean claiming a country that tried to wipe out our people.” Though Mohan tenderly says “kanna” like Ignacio Suarez (Tony Plana) said “mija” on Ugly Betty (ABC 2006-2010), a few words of Tamil can’t fully account for the varieties of experiences, many of them informed by deep traumas of violence and displacement, that could be represented in the South Asian diaspora.
Still, hearing Tamil means something to me, and it’s not just about my family, who has a different nickname for me anyway. The importance of Hindi-language cinema, especially in South Asian diasporic/Desi communities in the US led to a feeling of estrangement at my first South Asian students’ mixer in college. I felt culturally maladjusted as I struggled to get an orientation to the particularities of East coast tri-state geographies and Bollywood films. When someone tried to connect after I told them my family was from Tamil Nadu, they said “Oh you’re a TamBrahm!” “A what?” I asked. “A Tamil Brahmin!” I got dead in the eyes and just stared. “No, I’m not Brahmin. Sorry, I don’t get into that caste shit.” It got awkward. I recognize that even though I felt like an outsider in multiple spaces, because of language, race, disability, and sexuality, being Indian and Savarna Hindu has allowed me privileges not granted to Dalit, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, and other non-Hindu and non-Indian South Asian people.
I’m not religious now. I have sense memories I cherish, like the smell of burning camphor tablets, but even these feel increasingly distant. When I was 11, my mother had a crisis of faith, and I woke up to find our table-top home altar gone. We stopped doing pujas, and my mom started reading the Bible to try to find some sense of peace and faith in her world that was falling apart after being fired from her a job a few years before. Christianity didn’t stick however, and she returned to believing in some form of Hinduism, but the pujas stopped. I asked her about this, and she denies having a “crisis” of faith, but said “sometimes things happen in your life and you’re mad at God. I felt this way when you were born.” This was not a joke.
Never Have I Ever gets at the ugliness of conflict with your parents when you’re an adolescent with great specificity. Performed with restrained passion, the fights between Devi and Nalini gutted me. Their eviscerating exchanges feel relevant not just for teenagers and mothers in general, but the specific maternal relationship borne out of familial trauma and diasporic isolation. Nalini wanting to completely uproot her family to move back to India in the absence of her husband demonstrates how there is also no real supportive community for her. She is grieving just as much as Devi and similarly learning how to be vulnerable, when the only way she knows how to keep it together is to not show emotion. The final scenes of the show almost feel heavy-handed even though it is visually glorious as the women of the family stand together in a tearful moment of reconciliation and grief on a Malibu beach. It is melodramatic, as all good women’s culture is — Devi making it to Nalini in the nick of time - but in that lies its power. For a brief moment they figure out a way to mourn and pay tribute to Mohan that feels more personal, which in this case involves a song he loved that he heard on the radio. U2’s “Beautiful Day” is played as we see Devi remember her father through a montage of his most joyous moments doing nothing but simply reveling in her company.
That we cope and work through our pain through media may not come as a surprise, especially as many people have had to stay home more in the last three months and are confronting a depth of painful and scary feelings about our present and future. Besides watching and writing about NHIE, like others I sought communion with Fiona Apple’s Fetch The Bolt Cutters. Staying up all night in a room surrounded by old photos of me felt like a fitting way to experience this album during quarantine. In his seismic review for Vulture, Craig Jenkins begins:
It is possible to be born too early for the world to develop a language to understand the way that you move, and to be made to feel, throughout your formative years, like the difference between you and everyone else is a crime that warrants punitive action, an errant behavior or belief system you must be made to unlearn. People don’t often interrogate their conditioning. Why would they, when conformity provides structure, when ritual provides order?
Perhaps it is the combination of being in my parents’ home, providing parental care, and the general anxious dreams that many are experiencing, but these words resonated and I have read them every day since April 17. Devi in Never Have I Ever doesn’t indulge in the teenage practices of moodily listening to records. She is far too ambitious and insistent on tamping down bad feelings. Yet, as I watched this show, and Netflix promptly autoplayed me to episode after episode, I thought more about Kaling and her various writers. What they must have experienced, “born too early for the world to develop a language to understand the way that you move.” Kaling states, “writing about the Indian-American experience growing up was really fascinating to me. But it was also painful, too. If you're someone who has a sense of humor in your 20s and 30s, it most likely means that you had a very painful adolescence, right?” Most artists take that pain of not being understood and make fiction, comedy, drama and/or music that addresses some part of their (il)legibility. But it’s not just about being understood, there is the imperative to “interrogate their conditioning.” For South Asians, specifically Indian Savarna Hindus that take up cultural space (myself included), this isn’t just about confronting white racism then but upper-caste dominance. While I’m constantly contending with the younger version of myself who felt deeply wronged by the world, all angry like Devi and then some, the only way to some semblance of peace is through interrogating my conditioning. This is not to minimize that adolescent pain or deem it as something that does not matter — it most certainly does — but rather to extend that healing outward, recognizing how what you were conditioned into causes inordinate harm for others.
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