Never Have I Ever…… changed my mind so drastically about a TV show
Why Mindy Kaling’s show is the representation the South Asian community has been waiting for
Of all the TV series I’ve watched to date, Aziz Ansari’s Master of None is the only time I can recall seeing a leading protagonist of South Asian descent on a British or American TV show. Off the top of my head, Raj from The Big Bang Theory, Abed from Community and Cece from New Girl also spring to mind but they are featured more in supporting roles. When I came across Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, I was excited to see what the show had to offer.
For those who haven’t seen season one of Never Have I Ever, the story centres on Devi Vishwakumar, a 15-year-old girl, living in California who tries to come to terms with the death of her father. In addition to processing grief, the show deals with a myriad of other topics such as relationships, exploring sexuality, the struggles of fitting in at school as well as the pressures of academic success. This article however, will focus primarily on Never Have I Ever’s depiction of the Western South Asian experience.
I was very much looking forward to watching this show because I felt that the South Asian community was finally getting the representation that had previously been lacking in the Western world. However, after watching the first couple of episodes of Never Have I Ever, I have to admit that I was not convinced at all that this was the representation we neither wanted nor needed.
In the pilot episode, my attention was immediately drawn to the thick Indian accents and the conversations surrounding arranged marriages, both of which are aspects of South Asian culture that I have seen mocked consistently throughout my life. One scene in the second episode, showed Devi being described as having “the beauty of Priyanka Chopra”. I have a great deal of respect for Priyanka Chopra and think she is a fantastic role model and has done an amazing job of traversing the Bollywood/Hollywood divide. However, I couldn’t help but question whether her inclusion in this line was primarily because she is perhaps one of few Indian celebrities that a white audience would be familiar with.
As I continued to watch the show, I realised that I was being incredibly harsh. In terms of the strong accents I mentioned above, the characters with the accents, namely Devi’s mother Nalini and cousin Kamala, were from India and so their Indian accents were both necessary and accurate. Many of the older generations in my family maintain their accents from their countries of birth despite living in the UK for decades. On the topic of arranged marriages, I actually found that as the show progressed, it in fact challenges the traditional expectations surrounding the myth of Indian arranged marriages and illustrates the current, more modern response to it (whereby the couple can actually get to know each other for as long as they want as opposed to getting married straight away) whilst also highlighting the importance of family and loyalty in Indian culture. In relation to the Priyanka Chopra name drop, what is so wrong about mentioning her? Even if it is to cater to a wider audience, on reflection, I see no problem with that.
Just like that, my initial concerns I had were eradicated and by the time I had finished the whole season, my opinion of the show had completely changed.
“Why do I think it’s so weird or embarrassing to be Indian?”
In episode four, Devi bumps into an old friend Harish at the community’s Ganesh Puja celebrations. During the conversation, Harish informs Devi that whilst he used to be embarrassed about aspects of Indian culture, he has found that over time he has started to embrace them and even questioned himself with the following statement: “Why do I think it’s so weird or embarrassing to be Indian?”. Although Devi brushes this off, we see this embarrassment in her throughout the series. In the first episode, she comments on her cousin Kamala, stating “she’s just so…Indian” and continues to mock the way that she uses the phrase “open the TV” instead of “turn on” the TV. In that same Ganesh Puja episode, her love interest Paxton asks her what the festival is about, to which she responds “it’s a weird Indian thing”.
As a British person of South Asian descent, I can relate to this extremely closely. There have been so many occasions over the course of my life where I would brush over or diminish something that is integral to my culture, in the same way that Devi does, in order to try and fit in better with friends, colleagues or in society generally. There were often times where instead of explaining what certain Indian things were with pride or courage, I would instead avoid or move past those topics in an attempt to be more like others around me. It wasn’t anything that my friends did to make me feel like this but rather a reflection of my own insecurities of not being accepted because of these cultural differences.
I remember one occasion very vividly during a Spanish class when I was around twelve or thirteen years old and we were studying the vocabulary for members of the family. We each had to produce a family tree and talk through the names of our family members in Spanish. When it got to my turn, I had to talk about my maternal grandfather but I felt awkward and embarrassed, only because the names in my family (and Indian families generally) are quite long and I knew that the entire class would notice it being different. I remember hurrying through that exercise and mumbling my grandfather’s name under my breath to get the job done as quickly as possible. Yes, I was young at the time but in that moment, fitting in felt more important than accepting who I was.
A confusing cultural experience
When I was at university, I came across the term ‘BBCD’ for the first time. Whilst, British born Indians would refer to people from India as ‘Freshies’ or ‘FOBS’ (Fresh off the boat), the retaliatory comment was often that of a ‘BBCD’ (British Born Confused Desi). When I heard that term I genuinely laughed because it summarised me so aptly. I was born in the UK but felt that I was strongly in touch with Indian culture through the food, music, festivals and traditions that we uphold in my family. On the other hand, I can’t speak any Indian language and neither of my parents’ native tongues. If I were to go to India, I would be as lost as any other tourist. As surmised in episode four of Never Have I Ever, “even though Devi was Indian, she didn’t think of herself as Indian Indian”. Yet even in the UK, as I demonstrated earlier, there were instances where I would attempt to hide aspects of my culture in order to fit in. Therefore, this poses the question, where do I fit in?
I studied English Literature and French at university and was often described as a ‘coconut’ for doing so; the implication being that I was brown on the outside but white on the inside. This was a jibe at the fact that most South Asian students would stereotypically study Medicine, Engineering, Accountancy or Law. I went along with the coconut joke and even used it myself multiple times. I found it pretty funny too. I only really started to think more deeply into this when I heard the term ‘choc ice’ used by a friend to describe UK politician Priti Patel. Again, the implication was that whilst she had brown skin, she was a white person in disguise. A British Indian friend of mine called this out as soon as he heard this and responded extremely eloquently that “sometimes minorities have to play the game and act like their white colleagues in order to elevate themselves to the same position”. This does delve into further issues of race and identity but the main point I wanted to make in raising these two examples is that sometimes it can be confusing for South Asians in Western societies. By conforming to what white people are said to do, whether that be in education or in the workplace, you risk being labelled a ‘coconut’ or a ‘choc ice’ but if you lean too far onto the other side, you may be called a ‘Freshie’ or ‘FOB’ or someone equally incapable of integrating. Personally, I have never felt pressured towards either direction but these are some of the thoughts that have crossed my mind at certain moments during my upbringing. It is this sentiment of being from multiple places but not completely belonging to either that Never Have I Ever so effectively captures.
The representation that was needed
By the time I had finished watching Never Have I Ever, I had done a complete U-turn in terms of how I felt about the show. Whilst initially I was really sceptical about the show’s ability to connect with a Western South Asian audience, the more I watched, the more I found that it really did resonate with me, particularly in relation to feelings of awkwardness or embarrassment about my roots when I was growing up as well as identity confusion as I got older.
It is this sentiment of being from multiple places but not completely belonging to either that Never Have I Ever so effectively captures.
Now that I am bit older and have had a chance to reflect on some of these events of my upbringing, I would say that I am now more at ease with the different facets of my cultural identity. Where once, I may have felt a need to choose between affiliating with British culture or my South Asian heritage, I am now more comfortable in fully embracing both. It is this cultural confusion that Mindy Kaling encapsulates perfectly through the character of Devi, which truly struck a chord with me and I’m sure with so many others worldwide. The duality that Devi represents is depicted with an accuracy that I have rarely seen in a modern TV series. It is the main reason why I feel so strongly that Never Have I Ever is the representation of the Western South Asian experience that the community has been calling out for.
My grandfather’s name was Chimanlal Amarshi Shah, and I say it proudly.