Watch any show from the US or UK now, and there will be at least one Indian character in an important role; it’s not just a result of inclusivity contracts, but because Indians have integrated into Western society, without losing a sense of their own culture. When Never Have I Ever was greenlit by Netflix in 2020, it was among the first American web series that had an Indian teen as the lead, and the Indian way of life – the poojas, rituals, dancing to Bollywood songs, blingy costumes and nasty Aunties, effortlessly built into it.
The show created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, loosely based on the former’s own growing up years in the US, has the bright, nerdy and rebellious Devi Vishwakumar (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) as the lead, with Poorna Jagganathan playing her strict mother, Nalini, and Sendhil Ramamurthy as her father, who died young, but still plays an important role in her life. For some reason, tennis star John McEnroe is the narrator of Never Have I Ever, a role he performs with dry humour that is built into the script.
Born in the US, Devi is not the typical American-Born Confused Desi, the ABCDs who were one the objects of scorn; she sees herself as American, and hates the occasions when she has to dress in itchy saris and be taken to an Indian function. But she is also Indian enough to have great academic aspirations, and dreams of going to Princeton.
Season 4 of the show has just dropped, in which Devi is a bit more settled, less emotionally or sexually chaotic and on the way to finishing high school, which means leaving the safety of home to go to college. Her two besties, Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young) have also grown with her, after much bickering and making up. In the first season they were given the horrid nickname UN, not because of their racial diversity—the UN stood for unf***able nerds. Devi lusted after Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet), the leader of the good looking boys called Hot Pockets, while her nemesis in the classroom was the supersmart Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison).
Over the last three seasons, Devi and her pals had a lot of boyfriend troubles, hooking up and breaking up with a succession of dudes. At home, Devi’s mother is appalled when her niece Kamala (Richa Moorjani) who lives with them while completing her PhD studies, first accepts the Indian tradition of the arranged marriage and then rebels against it. But when Nalini herself meets a suitable mate, and what’s more, her mother-in-law Nirmala (Ranjita Chakravarty) finds herself a partner, Devi’s romantic see-sawing does not look too problematic.
The series has been praised for its non-stereotypical depiction of Indian-Americans, but it is also too treacly and cutesy, while Devi’s is always excessively hyper. But at a time when so many people of Indian origin are in positions of political and economic power in the West, it was about time the community was properly represented in popular culture. Never Have I Ever may not be the ideal medium, but it’s a start.
Never Have I Ever Season 4
Created by Mindy Kaling & Lang Fisher
Cast: Maitreyi Ramakrishnan Poorna Jagannathan, Richa Moorjani, Jaren Lewison and others