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Never Have I Ever…Seen The Indian American Experience On Screen Like This Before!

Posted: May 4, 2020

Never Have I Ever, a Netflix Original about an Indian American teen has its flaws, but is also the first time many Indian American teens are feeling seen.

Like many Indians born and brought up in India, some parts of Never Have I Ever, a Netflix show that features an Indian American high school girl, were painful to watch.

Within the first few minutes, the lead character’s (Devi, very convincingly played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) mother (a fabulous performance by Poorna Jagannathan!), screams at her to not drop the books on the floor because they have been blessed. I could swear my eyes rolled back into my head!

— Poulomi Das (@PouloCruelo) April 27, 2020

However, by the time Sendhil Ramamurthy (who plays Devi’s father, Mohan) pronounces thakkali (tomato, in Tamizh) as takli (a bald woman, in Hindi), in a later episode, I’d learnt to take these things with a pinch of salt, because what the show was saying had taken precedence, in my mind at least, over how it was saying it.

The show made me laugh out loud, feel frustration on behalf of the characters, and even ugly cry. I really enjoyed watching it. However, it also made me acutely aware, that this show wasn’t written or made for people like me, who grew up, or live in India.

A much needed exercise in representation

This is a show that is for the second generation Indian diaspora, especially Indian-American diaspora, that struggles with balancing their Indian roots with growing up in a different culture. Every day, around me, I see these experiences reflected in the lives of the children of my Indian neighbours.

The history of Indian Americans finding representation on American screens has been controversial. Between being caricaturized on shows like The Simpsons (Apu) or The Big Bang Theory (Raj Koothrapalli); to being central characters who don’t address their cultural roots in shows like The Mindy Project (Mindy Lahiri), or Quantico (Alex Parrish), it can be difficult to come across an Indian American character they actually relate with.

For many, Devi, and her family, are those characters.

And to be honest, there were parts of it that are universal “Indian experiences.” I actually guffawed when this was said, “Aunties are older Indian women who have no blood relationship to you but are allowed to have opinions about your life and all your shortcomings, and you have to be nice to them because you’re Indian.”

The show has also received praise for having a diverse cast, being sex-positive, and subverting stereotypes, and for doing that organically without making it look like it’s trying too hard.

Never Have I Ever: about 2nd gen Indian American kids

Yes, Devi is the stereotypical Indian teen who is a nerd and who is trying to get into a good college, but she is certainly not Miss Perfect. She gets into trouble and makes some seriously questionable decisions. Her cousin Kamala, does stereotypically resist an arranged marriage, but in a twist, is willing to consider marrying the boy her parents have chosen.

As this TIME article says, “Never Have I Ever paints a novel portrait of the nerd and the first-generation teenager, one that refuses to reduce her into just one or two defining traits. It fights, with its very existence, the stark narrative scarcity that South Asians have faced in teen dramas and on television in general.”

Some stereotypes still persist

However, questions have been raised about some other problematic elements of the show, such as some fatphobia and ableism. Also, in the process of subverting some stereotypes, other problems crop up. For example, I had to question whether Kamala would have ditched her American boyfriend, if the man her parents want her to marry wasn’t so good looking?

People have also wondered why it was necessary to have a white male narrator for the story of an Indian teen girl? The show explains it, but still, why?

Paving a path to more such stories?

Despite these issues however, Never Have I Ever is an important show. It is a good thing that there is so much debate around it, as it lays the foundation for more stories to emerge. One hopes that the success of the show greenlights many other such shows, that explore the diversity of the experiences of the Indian diaspora.

And for people like me, Indians who are born and brought up in India, the show offers a subtle message that we would do well to learn –there is no one way to be “Indian.” Even within India, that is a concept that defies definition. The more accepting we are of that, the better we will be able to repair the fractures in our society.

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