‘Never Have I Ever’ Seen a Brown Girl Talk Like That

When the first episode of Never Have I Ever opens, the protagonist Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is seen praying to Indian deities – knelt down, earnest and surprisingly quick-witted. She has a chat with the gods about how “last year sucked for a number of reasons” and how the gods can “make it up to her.” The sass is both inimitable and unprecedented at once. In the opening for the second episode, Devi is reading Anna Todd’s turbulent romance novel After when she is so invitingly interrupted by none other than Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet) – the guy she’s got the hots for – who not only announces he’s here for sex but also compliments Devi for both her beauty and incisive intellect. Of course, it’s a dream, but a brown girl dreaming of the forbidden fruit is nothing short of scandalous.

And did you look at how she asked God for blessings like they’re buddies? The gasps and the disbelief of the audience are audible as far ahead as India itself. A brown girl fantasising so passionately while living without inhibitions, unafraid to make mistakes immediately has our eyes and ears popping.

Devi doesn’t like to wallow

Never Have I Ever is the story of the overachieving first-generation Indian-American Devi Vishwakumar as she tries to navigate high school in Sherman Oaks, California. As she enters her sophomore year, she is keen on earning social currency. To be fair, she has a lot to redeem. Last year, at a school event, her dad died after suffering a heart attack.

While it’s a huge blow for her – she was closer and friendlier with her dad and can barely hold a conversation with her mom – it’s also made her the target of hushed whispers and school gossip. High school doesn’t let you forget it if your dad’s death inconveniently brought an event to an abrupt halt.

Her coping mechanism to deal with the loss and bullying is to repress her emotions. So her grief finds another outlet: she ends up temporarily paralyzed from the waist down. (As her therapist would later explain – the body keeps the score). She recovers soon enough — which is when she embarks on her sophomore year — but the looming question remains, “Can she shed her identity as the paralyzed Indian girl whose dad dropped dead at a school function?”

Never Have I Ever answers this question. What makes Mindy Kaling’s foray into teen romantic-comedy so different? It’s not magically devoid of Indian stereotypes, but in Devi’s character – and that of the other women – we find a refreshing departure from desi tropes.

Not your regular goody-two-shoes

The ingenuity of the name Never Have I Ever is not lost on us. It is not just a millennial drinking game listing the adventures you’ve had — it is a chronicle of all the mistakes Devi makes and all the lessons she is made to learn. And the real surprise of the series is Devi herself: a feisty, obstinate and unapologetic teenager with a terribly short temper and a bumpy equation with her mom. Even though the writing is not immune to the convenience of the typical teen irreverence, the novelty of the characters is hard to ignore. Devi is a nerd who excels in her studies and extracurricular activities, but she is also sensitive, insecure and raging with teenage hormones. A teen girl character that lies somewhere between a goody-two-shoes and a spoiled Sharpay-Evans-of-High-School-Musical? Revolutionary.

Back in the ’90s, researchers Dr Dana L. Fox and Holly A. Johnson studied how female characters are often portrayed as one-dimensional, making them unrelatable for the teen girl viewers sitting at the other side of the screen. Two decades later, very little has changed. The women we see on-screen rarely have dollops of chutzpah for a personality, let alone a teen girl. That the girl is Indian-American makes it seem all the more unfathomable. Yet, Ramakrishnan brings her unique brand of ferocity to the screen and brings to life this fallible, authentic character.

While we’re at it, Devi’s friends – Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) – also epitomise this representation. Just like Devi, they are sassy, spunky, spirited and very importantly, non-white. They’re thoughtful friends who bear the brunt of Devi’s wrath until they cannot anymore. It’s when they draw boundaries – yet another unprecedented action by women on screen – that Devi’s forced to own up to her selfishness.

When was the last time you saw a brown girl talk back to her mother?

The answer is never. To say that Devi does not have the best equation with her mother is an understatement. Devi is a ball of insecurity, fear, fantasies and nightmares, but she is also an angst-ridden teenager. Maitreyi shines with her unabashed dialogue delivery, especially in her scenes with Devi’s mother, Dr Nalini Vishwakumar, played by Poorna Jagannathan. The script gives them both space to hold on to their emotions, pretend everything is under control and leaves their own relationship in disrepair until they’re ready to come undone in the therapist’s office, separately. This is a freedom we have only seen men enjoy on-screen; women have always been shown on extreme ends of the spectrum, either creating a sobfest or acting stone-cold in the face of adversity.

For a show that’s not intensely joke-dense, these women breath life into the looming theme of death with humour that’s sharp, biting and often self-deprecating. Even when they are hostile, we know they aren’t gratuitously mean. When they exhibit gallows humour with the therapist, they are not labelled unfeeling; they are just processing grief in their own time. Which is why, when they do fall apart in the safe confines of their therapist’s office, they aren’t ‘too much’ or ‘too dramatic’. They are just sitting with their emotions. Devi is not judged when she misplaces her emotions, wrecks extracurricular work, ruins her friendships or expresses her desire to lose her virginity to Paxton. The ideals of perfection have been oppressive for women, both on the screen and in real life. Seeing Devi be vulnerable, self-destructive and fallible attacks that narrative, and does it well.

It is true that the show is laced with certain stereotypes about South Asian culture. But we would be doing the show a great disservice by expecting it to be representative of the entirety of the brown experience or the Indian-American experience.

After all, Never Have I Ever is the first time American pop-culture didn’t play safe on its tired ethnic stereotypes of docile, one-dimensional Indian women — even though we have Devi’s cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) pretend to fit into that mould. The honest portrayal of flawed brown women is nothing short of audacious – and that is the show’s victory on its own.

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