- Opinions range from 'what's the fuss all about' to 'too much sex'
The runaway success of Mindy Kaling’s Netflix series “Never Have I Ever,” a lively story of a first-generation Indian American teenager named Devi, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, is proof that mainstream America is ready to invite Indian American characters into its living rooms. Much like it welcomed the Huxtables in the 1990s.
But what do Indian Americans really think about the series? Did the story of an Indian American girl resonate with them? Did they think that the series tackled teenage issues and captured their angst?
The answer depends on who you ask. And which generation they belong to.
The younger lot, belonging to the Generation Z, found the series amusing, but was unable to fathom all the fuss about Devi’s problems with adjusting to her American friends and what’s with her mom being so paranoid. That’s because these youngsters have been raised in a more liberal atmosphere by parents who themselves come from cosmopolitan backgrounds in India. And some of them are third generation Indian Americans whose parents were also born and raised in the U.S.
Contrast that with the time Mindy Kaling was raised. Her parents hailed from more conservative families and they arrived in America when there were very few Indians around. Without support networks and living among white communities, the generation of Kaling’s vintage had a much more difficult time straddling a conservative and protective household and a liberal or even permissive culture outside.
Those who grew up in the U.S. in the 1980s and early 1990s said they could relate to some of Devi’s experiences, as well as to her mother, Nalini, played by Poorna Jagannathan.
On the other end of the spectrum were parents, most of who grew up outside the U.S., who believe that the series is setting a wrong example for teenagers – with its constant banter of being cool, fitting in, and of course, and Devi’s preoccupation with sex.
The Relatability Factor
Komal Ghirnikar, 21, a senior at University of Washington, Seattle, watched the series because it centered on an Indian American girl. “I thought it was a typical coming-of-age story that had some interesting elements to it,” she says.
Youngsters like Ishika Khanna, Aryaman Kulkarni, and Tanya Deepesh found it difficult to totally relate to Devi, but some of her experiences resonated with them. For Kulkarni, 19, a junior at University of Connecticut, some of Devi’s interactions with her parents, seemed familiar.
Deepesh, 23, a clinical trial associate at Bristol-Myers Squibb in New Jersey, said it was Devi’s Tamil identity that resonated most with her. She says her parents are not strict in the same way that Devi’s mom was, and she herself was “definitely” not the rebellious type like Devi, “so I think that is why I could not relate to them entirely.”
Another character in the series that seemed familiar to Deepesh was the old family friend Devi sees at the Ganesha Pooja. He tells Devi of how when he got into college, he realized that no one really cares about your background or ethnicity. He realized that you actually embrace your ethnicity more with the friends you make and the events you attend.
Deepesh notes she was never embarrassed or bullied because of her ethnicity. “I don’t think I was ever exactly embarrassed of being Indian, but now I am more proud about it.”
Sumant Inamdar, says “Never Have I Ever,” was just the story of this kid being a teenager with all the complications and feelings that it entails, dealing with grief, being different (in many ways) and the value of friendship and family. Inamdar, a financial analyst, is from Mississauga, the same town where Ramakrishnan grew up. He said the series “was thematically representative of being a first generational kid.”
Anjali Rao Martin is of a similar opinion to Inamdar’s. Rao Martin is a finance professional, who grew up in Delaware. Although she thinks certain things in “Never Have I Ever” are “over-the-top,” it depicted “a typical (high school) girl in today’s society.”
And it was this straddling of two worlds, two cultures, which Kaling wanted to show in the series.
In an interview with the Press Trust of India, Kaling spoke of how “Never Have I Ever” gave her a chance to reflect on her own “Indian-ness.” She said a lot of Devi’s conflict and insecurities about her Indian roots are inspired by her growing up experience as a first-generation Indian-American. “My coming to terms with my ‘Indian-ness’ is a big part of the show. I was born in the U.S., raised in a pretty white area, without speaking any Indian languages, so culturally I always felt I straddled the lines of two cultures,” she said.
However, it seems like a lot of young Indian Americans don’t feel the pressure of their dual identities. One of the reasons could be the increasing number of Indian Americans in the U.S. According to data from the Census Bureau’s 2018 American Community Survey (ACS), the population of Indians living in the U.S., increased by nearly 0.9 million or 49 percent, in last eight years.
Ishika Khanna, 21, a recent graduate of Rutgers University, went to a school with almost 40 percent Indian Americans in her grade. Although her experiences were different from those of Devi, she says she liked the idea that the series tried to reject the idea that all Indians are nerds.
Stressing on the Stereotypes
Then there are those like Geetanjali Mittal who thought the series was full of clichés and stereotypes. The 37-year-old banker feels that Devi’s story has been turned into a “generic Indians in America for Dummies,” with “so many clichés, from accents to education pushy parents and kids drifting elsewhere.”
Noting that it’s a fry car from the modern day reality, she says, “Teenagers have far more cosmopolitan parents now.”
Khanna is among those who do not believe that Devi’s Indian identity in the series is incidental. In fact, she feels the opposite. She feels that through each episode, the series kept reminding the viewer that Devi was brown.
But at the same time, she agrees that “Never Have I Ever” presents a different point of view from Apu Nahasapeemapetilon of “The Simpsons,” or Rajesh Ramayan Koothrappali of “The Big Bang Theory.”
Srividya Badhiraju, a New York City-based physician, has a different take on the series. There are incidents in the series that are “stereotypical but not untrue,” she observes. And [they are] not disrespectful,” she says.
Badhiraju grew up in the U.S. in the 1980s in Plano, Texas She recalls how a lot of Indian Americans then were the only Indians or minorities in schools. “Our parents were very conservative usually and most of us were pretty nerdy, she says. “I had friends with more liberal parents, but [that was] when they were way less obsessed with having a boyfriend.”
Along with the divergent points of view, there was also an agreement on a few aspects of the series. One of them was the tension and divide between Devi and her mother, Nalini. “That mother-daughter divide was real,” Khanna says.
The other was the attempt to address topics like mental health which are still considered a taboo in South Asian cultures. “I liked how therapy was normalized throughout the show,” Deepesh says. “Even though Devi’s mom didn’t believe in it, Devi still enjoyed going and you can tell it was a normal part of her life.”
In one of her interviews, Ramakrishnan too reflected on this aspect of the show and hoped that it starts a conversation about mental health. “In this day and age, I think the South Asian community is becoming more accepting of [talking about] mental health,” she told Teen Vogue. “Everyone is very open to telling people, ‘Hey, I think you should go talk to somebody.’”
Too Much Sex
While some are lauding the series for breaking away from certain taboo topics, there are parents like Chef Neelma Patel and filmmaker Vijay Mirchandani who believe that “Never Have I Ever”will corrupt the young, impressionable minds and give them the wrong ideas.
Noting that the series is not appropriate for children below 17, Patel, 45, a mother of two boys, 16 and 21, says, “To an extent, no matter what, sex is still a topic full of stigma and even at that age when kids are so advanced in this country, there’s a lot to say about cultural differences.”
Mirchandani, 50, father of two daughters says that even if insecurity and a certain pressure to fit in could be a part of high school, “high schoolers are getting wrong messages. “It’s not what high school is all about,” he says. “Someone’s own personal experience cannot be portrayed as a way of life and acceptance.”
Rao Martin disagrees. She says teenage girls are interested in boys and sex, and “whether parents want to admit it if not many of their Indian sons and daughters are thinking and doing these things.” However, she acknowledges that “Indian parents of this generation, whether raised here in the U.S. or Canada or raised in India, are also more aware and forward.”
According to her, what the series is missing a character portraying an Indian parent who “doesn’t just forbid everything, but has an open dialogue with his or her kids about these realistic behaviors in high school.”