‘Never Have I Ever’: Hollywood finally gets it right in portraying an Indian teenager’s experience

November 15, 2023 — by Saachi Jain
Courtesy of J-14
Protagonist Devi Vishwakumar from Never Have I Ever.
Vishwakumar is the protagonist in the 2020 Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” which  depicts her roller coaster of high school experiences.

Dainty piano music crescendos as the camera pans outward, revealing a Geometry textbook set upon a praying area — this is a quintessential scene from the Netflix show “Never Have I Ever,” starring Hindu protagonist Devi Vishwakumar. The show was spearheaded by famous actress and screenwriter, Mindy Kaling, who has been a recent advocate for diverse representation in media. 

As the daughter of two immigrant Indian parents, Devi navigates the highs and lows of high school while living up to her widowed mother’s high expectations for her future. The show, which first premiered in April 2020 and concluded with its third season, follows her from sophomore to senior year, exploring her school life, family life and every teenage girl’s favorite — relationship drama. 

Many of Devi’s aspirations are completely relatable — she wants to be a good student, have the best extracurriculars and go to the best college. This pressure is often put on her by her mom, her adult cousin Kamala and her Patti, or grandmother. 

I identify with these pressures, as my parents put similar expectations on me that have become part of my own thinking. As is the mentality with many immigrant parents, they care about my doing well in school, going to college and living a stable life. These expectations have been felt by many of my friends growing up as well, but seeing it portrayed in the media was a first for many of us. 

The icing on the cake, however, is the show’s realistic portrayal of an Indian-American growing up in a traditional Indian household while being surrounded by the pressures of succumbing to American culture. She struggles to identify solely as one or the other, and many of her interactions with her family and Indian community are remarkably accurate.

I grew up immersed in Indian culture, but not very “traditionally.” I have always considered myself more American than Indian, but have always celebrated traditional Indian holidays and grew up steeped in traditional Indian practices. 

Both of my parents immigrated to the United States in their 20s, and my older sister and I grew up eating meat, cutting our hair and observing traditional American practices that are sometimes unheard of in India. I do, however, relate to Devi’s goals in life and her struggle of determining how Indian she truly is.

Even scenes as simple as the celebration of a Ganesh Puja — a festival tributing the Hindu deity Ganesha — or an episode surrounding a traditional Hindu wedding, are the much-needed representation in popular culture of Indian-Americans. I greatly relate to these traditions, as my family also celebrates many of these holidays.

It is important to note that “Never Have I Ever” is not the first attempt at incorporating Indian culture into American shows, but one of the first ones which I felt was mostly accurate and not inherently racist and stereotypical.

For the longest time, my reference was the character Ravi in the hit Disney channel show “Jessie.” Ravi is portrayed as a “stereotypical Indian” character. He always wears a traditional kurtha — a long, elaborately designed shirt worn by both males and females in India — and is portrayed as awkward, unathletic and the nerdiest person in his adopted family. 

Despite living in the United States for most of his life, he still speaks with a heavy Indian accent. The image that Ravi painted of Indian-Americans was negative and inaccurate, if anything. Rather than portraying an Indian character who is well assimilated into American culture, the screenwriters consistently made his character stand out and continued to highlight his differences rather than his other qualities, including a quirky sense of humor and down-to-earth personality.

Though I knew the show catered to stereotypes, I also realized that shows like “Jessie” were the only image some Americans have of Indian-Americans. I felt disappointed in not only “Jessie,” but other film studios for not making a decent effort toward inclusion of Indian-American characters. For example, Disney is yet to make a movie centralized around an Indian protagonist, and I sought accurate representations of my culture growing up. 

Then I got to high school, and “Never Have I Ever” was released.

Devi is different from the stereotypical Indian-American character that the media so often portrays. Though she cares about school and does perform well, she desires a social life, wants to be popular and goes through the typical relationship woes and wants that most experience while in high school. 

If there’s one thing I identify with most in Devi, it’s that nobody is perfect. Everyone has their ups and downs and faces the same pressures from themselves and others. It’s great that the writers developed her personality more beyond stereotypical Indian representation in other media, and everyone, whether or not you are Indian-American, can identify with her journey and learn from it.

Tags: reivew
19 views this week