The Student
Exploring Expectations of Never Have I Ever for South Asian Representation
by Manvir Dobb, 10/05/20

About a year ago, Mindy Kaling posted an open call for Indian-American teens on her Instagram to audition for her new Netflix show, titled Never Have I Ever. The liberation that came with this being an open call was reflective of how ground-breaking the show intended to be with its actual plot. The South Asian diaspora echoed such excitement and expectation.

However, despite the novelty of this casting method, we must also remember that the main reason for the open call was probably due to the small number of South Asian teenage girls that were actually signed up to a casting agency. It’s hard to juggle an up-and-coming career in acting while also living up to aspirations of becoming both the family doctor and a round-roti-making domestic goddess. As displayed in my last sentence, it is normal to make comic the stereotypes of your culture. However, the danger in having this then perceived as the whole truth of a people to those who do not live that life on a daily basis is what ultimately makes this show a necessity.

In her famous TED Talk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie said, ‘The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.’ If we put this into the context of Never Have I Ever, it offers a lense into the realities behind Indian stereotypes; but, when I say a lense, I really mean one.

Millions of South Asian immigrant children (myself included) were putting a lot of weight on this show to be a perfect representation of their lives. Of course, it did not, and simply could not, live up to such an unrealistic expectation. And this is not a bad thing. It offered the beauty of an individual story which hopefully acted as a token to, and catalyst in, diversifying Hollywood.

The plotline of the show is centred on our 15 year old protagonist, Devi; a second-generation migrant who lives with her mother, Nalini, and beautiful cousin, Kamala, who has come to the land of the free to study at Caltech. In a dark and matter-of-fact spirit, the first ten minutes of the show inform us that her beloved father passed away a year ago, shortly after which she lost motion in her legs, but miraculously manages to regain after attempting to stand in order to catch a glimpse of her crush. The combination of love mixed with teen spirit really is an invincible force.

A strong pill which I was forced to swallow with this show was how much the protagonist annoyed me. It was heartbreaking seeing the character you were hoping to be your voice and experience really piss you off, and naturally it added a sour note to the show as a whole. Her obsession with having sex with the most popular boy in school was an exhaustive plotline, and her repeated ill treatment of her friends coupled with her know-it-all-verging-on-unsympathetic attitude gave her teenage angst a new level of irritation.

However, my initial despair and anger of the protagonist not being who I wanted her to be meant that I was forced to look at this show with less emotional relatability and a more critical eye. The show explores a whole array of South Asian culture from gossiping aunties at religious functions, to alpine academic expectations, and never-forgotten arranged marriages. Juggling all of this with a mix of cynicism, truth, and respect is one of the key reasons why Kaling is at the forefront of South Asian representation in Hollywood.

On a personal note, being able to identify with so much of this show meant that bits which I could not fully relate to forced me to broaden my understanding of the South Asian population outside of my own narrative. The basic fact that she was growing up in America was an obvious difference, and made me grateful that my family decided that it was the original land of the colonisers they wanted to move to. The pastime of generally shunning upon American culture was a nice reminder that I am a true Brit after all.

Another stark contrast was the complete absence of the special breed of South Asian patriarchy that I was rubbing my hands with deep excitement to have exposed. Understandably, there was not much to be done about this seeing that the father was dead.

I must remember, this is Devi’s story and not mine; and if I was acting like this was my only hope of Hollywood telling my story, this only speaks for the change that we need to see in the film industry. India has the largest population in the world, and one of the highest diasporas in post-modern history. There are many stories yet to be heard, and I hope that Never Have I Ever was a watershed moment for many to come.

Image: Never Have I Ever via Wikipedia