Never Have I Ever, a recent Netflix original show, follows the story of a South Indian female, Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), who is mourning the death of her father while also navigating the melodramatics of high school life. It highlights important aspects of South Indian culture such as arranged marriage, polytheism, and Ganesh Pooja without playing into outdated or falsely-comedic stereotypes. Creator of the series, Mindy Kaling, was able to accurately convey the contours of South Indian culture as well as depict the difficulty of embracing it through Devi’s character development.
After speaking to a number of my South Indian friends who watched the show, it seems that the narrative of Never Have I Ever is what troubles people the most. For example, Devi’s refusal to attend Ganesh Pooja and her dislike of South Indian attire give off the impression that South Indian culture is inherently “uncomfortable” or “foreign.” Speaking as a South Indian female, I can attest to the awkwardness that is Ganesh Pooja, having to be surrounded by aunties and uncles that judge your clothes or fluency in Hindi (or Tamil, or Telugu, or Gujurati, etc.). I can also say that the process of putting on, pinning, and securing a half-saree or saree can be difficult the first couple of times!
However, this is a feeling that is unremarkably common among South Indian youth. Our experiences as first or second-generation immigrants have undoubtedly caused us to go through this “phase” of rebellion against our culture in an effort to assimilate to Western ideals. It is also true that (for most South Indians) this discomfort eventually helps us embrace our heritage and find ourselves within our community.
That is to say: it is okay for POC to show struggle and vulnerability in mainstream media. It is important to acknowledge that there is a constant pressure on POC to uphold our cultural morals and correct Hollywood’s distorted portrayal of South Indian people and our values. In the same way it can be easy to fault POC, such as Kaling, who create content that incorporates South Indian representation for miniscule details that may offend a handful of viewers. I believe that it is more valuable to commend Kaling’s work, as other notable Indian American celebrities have already done.
Hasan Minhaj, a well-known Indian American comedian, congratulated Mindy Kaling and her co-creator, Lang Fisher, on the show’s release in a recent Instagram post which said, “Y’all made a classic! I haven’t felt this way since Mom brought home ‘American Desi’ on VHS from the Indian grocery store.”
It was never Kaling’s intention to create a serious communique about South Indian culture. The show itself focuses on Devi’s experience as a high schooler who is struggling with her father’s death and retaliates by abandoning her friends for a boy whom she has insincere feelings for.
Never Have I Ever is not a South Indian show that offers comedic moments, it is a comedy show that features South Indian representation. Let us judge it for what it is, and not what you wish it would be.
Girl Museum Inc.