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Mindy Kaling’s latest show Never Have I Ever does prove to be a game-changer in some ways. But still adheres to some common Indian stereotypes and jokes.
It is great to finally see a lead character on mainstream television with similar roots to me. Someone with strikingly similar traditions, appearances and shaped by similar experiences and upbringing. Having spent my childhood and teenage looking at shows like Hannah Montana, Wizards of Waverly Place, Gossip Girl and even Riverdale, the shell of my 15-year-old self was intrigued. I wanted to know more about Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever.
It tells us the story of an Indian-American girl 15-year-old Devi Vishvakumar played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Devi is still reeling from the death of her father a few months prior to the beginning of the show. She suffers an untimely paralysis yet manages to get back on her feet.
The show basically focuses on her relationship with her mother, and unresolved trauma after her father’s death. And obviously her budding romance with her Paxton Hall- Yoshida. He is the typical unattainable high school dreamboat that has grown to be so prevalent on American TV shows.
The first episode opens with Devi praying to an assortment of Indian gods and goddesses about her hopes and dreams for her sophomore year. Her first and foremost wish is to have ‘attainable and status-enhancing people’ for her friends to date.
The second wish was to be ‘invited to a party with alcohol and hard drugs.’ Followed by ‘a stone-cold hottie to rock her all night.’ Yet, can messages like these truly speak to our psyche? Are they really as universal?
On one hand, this may be considered a win for the representation of the South-Asian diaspora. But on the other, it is also necessary to think of the underlying privilege that remains so prevalent in this TV show too.
It almost seems as though a show was meant for a primarily western audience. A number of the rather cliched plot-lines were the ones that only the American and western audiences can relate to.
In this way, we end up essentialising specific personality traits and qualities rather than truly celebrating diversity. This, especially given the fact that stereotyping is one of the series’ biggest gimmicks.
Some of the jokes and quips definitely appear to fall short in many ways. The depiction of Indian culture itself appears rather ambiguous as they resort to categorising and branding it under one homogenous roof.
After speaking to some of my friends, we realised that it is entirely possible that the audiences may view some of these stereotypes and jokes as the accurate representation of the Indian culture.
The show does try its best to underscore some of the defining struggles that most Indian-Americans will probably have. But these appear almost as an afterthought in some of Devi’s more teen defining struggles.
Her preoccupation with her romantic and dating prospects remain the cornerstone to her character. She seems to see teenage love as her one defining adult experience, despite the fact that girls her age struggle with so much more. Why is this another strong and diverse female lead’s preoccupation romance and boys?
She still prides the ability to have a high school boyfriend and sex to be priority and often defines her self-worth according to this washed-up ideal. This is primarily what her immigration story is centred around- living up to an ideal of a toxic adolescent western culture. Living up to the idea that only seeks to bring her down. Is this truly what every Indian girl goes through especially as we are so independent and empowered?
As a result, the Indian-American identity in conflict seems rather muted. Her sense of loss and unresolved grief over her father’s death remains confined to the last two episodes of the show.
An exploration of the father-daughter relationship could have brought into the spotlight and been a pertinent theme of the show; rather than the overdone and overwhelming weight of romantic drama.
The diversity of the show is definitely commendable as it features one of the most diverse casts we may have ever seen on teen rom-coms so far. It is almost as though there is constant signposting throughout. For instance, Devi’s group of friends is referred to as ‘the UN’ because of their ethnic diversity.
However, it does do an adept job with the side plot of Devi’s complex relationship with her mom and its progress and development throughout the show. The sense of agency her cousin, Kamala acquires is also well-done as we see her defying her parents’ wish for an arranged marriage.
Even though I personally would have wanted more focus on this aspect, queer sexuality is also a concept that is visited through her friend, Fabiola. Her theatre-nerd best friend, Eleanor also defies the stereotypical Asian American ‘model-minority’ trope.
Is this a definite win for the representation of South-Asian diaspora on such a big screen? Yes! How I wish there were shows like these back when I was still struggling in high school. Having Devi as my on-screen companion of sorts would probably have helped.
Do we still have a long way to go? Most definitely. We can do better.
Picture credits: Still from the show Never Have I Ever
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Shivani is currently an undergraduate political science student who is passionate about human rights and
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