“Never Have I Ever” caricatures South-Asian culture in the name of representation

Maitreyi Ramakrishnan plays Devi is Netflix's "Never Have I Ever." Photo courtesy of Lara Solanki/ Netflix

By Anoushka Dalmia
BU News Service

“Even though she was Indian, Devi didn’t think of herself as ‘Indian Indian’ like those girls — Which is a whole other thing.” 

This is the narrator voiceover in the fourth episode of “Never Have I Ever,” when the Indian-American protagonist Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) attends a celebration for a Hindu festival and sees a group of young girls performing a dance. 

This moment clumsily attempts to encapsulate the central theme of “Never Have I Ever” — identity conflict among some second and third-generation immigrants. But it also mirrors the chaotic nature of the plot, which takes on too many narratives and fails to deliver on most.

The show repeats everything you’ve seen before in a show about adolescence. The only difference is its attempts to provide insight into Indian culture. But making a television show whose primary appeal lies in the representation of a culture with thousands of intertwined threads isn’t an easy task. Parodying its facets and oversimplifying its nuances upholds the very misconceptions this show is claiming to thwart. 

Kamala, Devi’s cousin in her mid-twenties, has come to the States from India to complete her Ph.D. at Caltech. She is portrayed as a sheltered young woman. Riverdale fascinates her, she’s never had a boyfriend before coming to this country and she likes to watch Bollywood films that are “only seven hours long.” 

The cultural shock that Kamala experiences isn’t unwarranted but greatly exaggerated for a young person in 2020. Young people in India who have the means to study abroad grew up on the internet, so likely don’t have the huge gaps in cultural comprehension that this show plays for laughs. 

During the episode centered around a Hindu festival, the show incorporates some controversial cultural references. Kamala meets a woman who’s been shunned by the Indian community for marrying a Muslim-American man over an Indian (presumably Hindu) man chosen by her parents. When asked about her decision, she says, “I wish I had just listened to my parents. Then maybe I wouldn’t be divorced.” Without context and repudiation, this sequence is objectionable, to say the least. 

And the dubious statements keep coming. Nalini, Devi’s mother, scoffs at the idea of their pandit (Hindu priest) taking an Uber. “What’s next, Prime Minister Modi on Postmates? Over my dead body.” Suggesting approval of the contentious nationalist Prime Minister and not challenging anti-Muslim sentiments isn’t just tone-deaf, it’s extremely irresponsible.

Even beyond the tenets of Indian representation, the show’s reliance on old-fashioned and problematic tropes is frustrating. Not five minutes into the show, the narrator celebrates Devi’s happiness at getting out of a wheelchair with the line, “With working legs comes a whole host of new possibilities.” An overweight kid in Devi’s class is positioned as a “funny” prop in multiple episodes, going around drinking spoiled milk or asking for free cookies. 

Devi’s love interest, Paxton Hall-Yoshida, is the most popular kid in school. Upon meeting Devi, Paxton’s sister comments that Devi “doesn’t look like a skank,” which is how his girlfriends usually look. The “she’s not like other girls” narrative desperately needs to retire, whereby we need to pull down other characters to lift up female protagonists.

Paxton and his friends are popular and into sports, so they’re instantly categorised as academically unambitious. On the other hand, Devi’s fellow classmates at a Model United Nations event are “nerds.” Upon hearing a rumor about Devi and Paxton, their reaction is preposterous. “You should have a bed to yourself. Sleeping next to our bodies is a let down compared to the marble statue you’re used to being with.”  

The ultimate problem with “Never Have I Ever” is that it wants to make everyone happy. It appeals to American feminism, which instinctively assumes that an arranged marriage takes away the choice of a woman. It pleases brown parents, who believe they aren’t forcing these marriages, simply providing options restricted by religion, caste and social class. It satisfies the closet conservative, when Kamala breaks up with her American boyfriend ten minutes after meeting the Indian man her parents have picked out. And it shoves into your face that this can still be feminism – Kamala isn’t marrying him right away, she “chose” to date him (after seeing his good looks).

It would be unfair to expect Kaling and the writers to paint a comprehensive picture of all South-Asian nations in ten episodes about a American-Indian teenager. But in their attempt to uplift a minority within America, they’ve forgotten more than a billion people who belong to this culture.

“Never Have I Ever” premiered on April 27 and is available on Netflix

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