Back in April last year, writer and actress Mindy Kaling tweeted an open casting call for her upcoming semi-autobiographical Netflix show centred around the complexities of navigating life as a first-generation Indian-American teenager. On offer were the show's three pivotal parts " the lead role of a high school sophomore, the role of the 40-something mother, and that of the 20-something cousin from India. Part of the reason for opening up " and by extension, democratising " the casting process on social media stemmed from Kaling's dissatisfaction at seeing "28-year-old, gorgeous Bollywood stars audition for parts" they looked nothing like. A total of 15,0000 applicants poured in, including 18-year-old Canadian newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan who was eventually cast in the titular role of Devi Vishwakumar. The other two parts went to Indian-American actresses Richa Moorjani who stars as Kamala, Devi's attractive cousin and Poorna Jagannathan " last seen in the second season of Big Little Lies " plays Devi's widowed mother Nalini. From the onset, Kaling made one thing clear: striving for authenticity was the show's raison d'Ãªtre.
A year later, that calling card comes to a head in the fourth episode of Never Have I Ever, the 10-part Netflix series Kaling co-created with writer Lang Fisher, which makes a train-wreck out of representation, flattening cultural specificities into recognisable theatrics.
Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in a still from Never Have I Ever
The 30-minute affair revolves around a Ganesh Puja celebration that brings together the neighbourhood Hindu diaspora. No time is wasted in making it obvious that this is the show's "India special" episode: it opens with an out-of-place Bollywood tune as we see Devi being forced into wearing an uncomfortable silk saree. Then follows the Indian montage¢, a staple of American pop-culture overconfident in its ability to take a viewer around a country of over one billion under 10 seconds. By now, its presence is in itself a giveaway that a show isn't actually invested in depicting India, just in summarising it.
Never Have I Ever is a prime example: In its montage, the Taj Mahal crops up as does an elephant and a sadhu, possibly the most abused identifiers linked with the country. But the icing on the cake are shots from Durga Puja, a Hindu festival celebrated by Bengalis, which is in no way connected to Ganesh Puja. The placement sticks out because it makes no sense unless the message you're trying to send out is that all Hindu festivals are mirror images of each other " a reductive observation by any measure. The rest of the episode doesn't fare better, dressed as an indulgence of NRI cliches that take away from its inclination to dive into deeper themes like examining the ramifications of Devi rejection of her Indian identity or her repressed grief about her father's tragic death.
(L-R) Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (Devi), Poorna Jagannathan (Nalini, Devi's mother), Richa Moorjani (Kamala, Devi's cousin). A still from the show
Instead, the focus is squarely on carrying out a performance of Indianness " there is talk of a curse, a divorced Hindu woman socially ostracised for marrying a Muslim man blames herself for going against her family's wishes, and a Bollywood dance troupe and a Pandit named Raj (the de-facto Bollywood hero name) appear out of nowhere. The exaggeration of religion and devotion on display feels unnecessary, mainly because the episode has very little to say about either, coming across as nothing more than a fancy dress party. To that end, the problem isn't that Never Have I Ever isn't a show that employs these broad strokes without much thought. American shows are after all, notorious for presuming that encapsulating the essence of being Indian is as easy as dedicating an episode on a display of Indianness " usually the subplots hinge on either an Indian wedding (New Girl) or a Hindu festival (The Office). The problem simply is, that for a show that centres its whole universe around the authenticity of representation, Never Have I ever is interested in scratching as much surface as any other generic series with much lesser investment.
Set in Sherman Oaks, California, Never Have I Ever is set to familiar teen sitcom beats: its protagonist is an awkward high-school nerd desperate to gain social currency along with her two bumbling best friends, that is in similar vein as Mean Girls, To All The Boys I've Loved Before or even Booksmart. In the mix is a ridiculously hot boy with a penchant for giving out mixed signals and a nerdy nemesis, who is both lonelier and friendlier than he seems. You can sense the love-triangle coming from miles away.
There's nothing unique about the show's coming-of-age plot, even when you consider it as a teen prequel to The Mindy Project but that's not to say that it isn't watchable. Never Have I Ever has the easy, charming disposition associated with Kaling's comedic voice, armed with her affinity for creating likeable characters and eye for an ensemble (Here she casts The Office's Angela Kinsey in a late-minute cameo that is as winsome as the Mark-Jay Duplass coup in The Mindy Project). There's an especially clever comic set-piece where Devi and her two best friends attempt a Tik-Tok dance video to hilarious effect, prodding teenage obsessions as adeptly as it highlights cultural preoccupations. Mid-video, Devi's mother appears in the frame, cruelly dragging her away; she re-enters the frame a few seconds later, forced to wear a t-shirt under her sleeveless bodycon dress. The enemy, as it turns out, was a display of skin, also known as every Indian mother's favourite nightmare. It's perhaps the only time the show came close to recreating a fabric of Indian existence instead of blindly replicating it.
Indeed, Never Have I Ever is at its most enjoyable when it forgets its Indian roots and plays out just like any other teen coming-of-age set in the backdrop of friendly miscommunication, public humiliation at a party, and an unexpected kiss from an unattainable crush. In that sense, none of Devi's dilemmas actually depend on her identity or her refusal to negotiate with it. Her Indianness is devoid of a purpose, serving as an accessory that she can discard at convenience. Yet removing the Indian identity from Never Have I Ever will be giving the show a leeway, given its promise of representation is exactly what sets its premise on a higher ground than other coming-of-age stories, eliciting praise and critical acclaim by default.
The need for any kind of representation onscreen is effectively both an indicator of, and a response to, marginalisation. A multi-hyphenate Indian-American star creating a global Netflix comedy series starring a predominantly Indian-American cast is definitely cause for joy, a step towards an inclusive onscreen universe, habituated to rendering certain stories invisible. But that's also an incomplete picture at best " the ideals of representation relies as much on who gets to tell their stories as it does on what stories they choose to tell.
The story that Kaling's Never Have I Ever tells is a deeply conservative version " bordering on caricature " that predominantly satisfies the assumptions that people hold of a particular culture instead of dismantling them. Take for instance, how the show builds up the two supporting female protagonists. Nalini is the usual overprotective single parent, now a catchy immigrant trope, but with a tempering of a singsong cadence, juvenile superstitions (a recurring gag is her making a big deal about a book blessed by gods falling to the ground), and a put-on Indian accent. She is essentially an amalgamation of everything your white friend assumes Indian families are like after watching one Bollywood film, filled with endless arguing and song-and-dance.
In fact, Nalini's implied progression is contrasted by her archaic mindset toward arranged marriage: Her enthusiasm at breaking the news of Kamala's parents finding a prospective suitor " essentially a stranger Kamala has never met " for her forced me to double-check if the show was set in the 1980s on more than one occasion. At one point, during a Skype call with her future in-laws, Nalini interrupts Kamala as she talks about her PhD degree and steers the conversation toward cooking. It feels especially jarring because we're never allowed to get inside Nalini's mind: Did she, like countless Indian women, internalise arranged marriage as the ideal or does she truly believe in it? There's no way to know.
But the true extent of Never Have I Ever's shortcomings in depicting what it truly means to be Indian-American in a country that is becoming more and more inhospitable to diversity, is in the character of Kamala. Kaling envisions Kamala, who Devi labels "too Indian" in the opening minutes, as a ditzy Indian beauty, which would have been on-the-nose even in the 1980s. The accent gets even more grating and the mannerisms, unbearably caricaturish " Moorjani nods her head way too often as comic relief and frequently plasters on a clueless expression as if she's a cartoon and not a person.
Her storyline, unbearably heavy-handed, falls into the trappings that portrayals of Indianness is trying to claw out of: the clash between tradition and modernity and the eventual, inexplicable triumph of the former. For instance, on learning about her upcoming wedding, Kamala breaks up with her white boyfriend, not because she has fallen out of love or is ready for marriage. But because, "I have a choice between my family and a life of shame that will disgrace me and my descendants for generations" That a show equates arranged marriage with family honour is telling of its politics but more importantly, that it encourages its women to be submissive to the demands of domesticity, makes its accomplishment of representation seem almost redundant. Especially, considering how Kaling lends a cheerful air of justification to these stereotypes, as if this is the preferred way of living.
This insistence on a black and white interpretation of a diverse culture regurgitates a rigid definition of Indianness that the West is already comfortable identifying. This, in a way, is the ultimate Never Have I Ever problem: What good is demanding a pat on the back for writing a show about Indian Americans if you're not even willing to change the narrative?