Maitreyi Ramakrishnan cannot tolerate people who mispronounce her name. And it’s not just her name, but every aspect of her identity is equally important to the 18-year-old star of Netflix’s new series “Never Have I Ever.”
“If you can say the character names in ‘Game Of Thrones,’ you can say my Tamil name,” she told Now, an alternative weekly newspaper and online publication in Toronto.
And given the splash she’s created with her acting debut, people need to not just make an effort to say her name the right way, but also remember her name. The critical acclaim and the adulation she’s been receiving indicate that the Mississauga native is here to stay.
Ramakrishnan is not just vocal about sticking to her 20 character name without any easy to pronounce short forms, she’s equally outspoken about her heritage.
She identifies herself as a Tamil Canadian, not a Sri Lankan Canadian. Her parents — Ram Selvarajah, an IT Specialist and mother Kiruthiha Kulendrien, a marketing professional — came to Canada as refuges to escape from Sri Lanka’s civil war. She has an elder brother, Vishwaa Ramakrishnan.
“Tamil Canadian is very, very important to me … my identity isn’t being Sri Lankan,” she told Now. “That’s not my country. My country is Canada. But my culture is definitely Tamil.”
Census Canada 2016 data shows that Canada is home to almost 141,000 Sri Lankan Tamils, making it one of the largest Tamil diaspora populations.
In “Never Have I Ever,” the feisty teenager plays Devi Vishwakumar, a first-generation Indian American growing up in California’s San Fernando Valley. Devi, a high school sophomore, is coping with her father’s death and struggling with her identity, while also trying to navigate the high school social scene.
The Star describes Devi as being “unapologetically high-achieving and driven,” and is quite short tempered. “I love the fact that she is confident,” Ramakrishnan told the paper. “She likes being on top. She’s not ashamed of it.”
The series, co-created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, is loosely based on Kaling’s years growing up.
Devi is figuring out her sophomore year in high school with her two best friends — Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young) and Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez) — who are struggling with their own issues as well. Others in the cast include, Jaren Lewison as Devi’s wealthy school nemesis Ben Gross; Darren Barnet as Paxton Hall-Yoshida, Devi’s high-school crush; Poorna Jagannathan as Nalini, Devi’s strict her mother; Sendhil Ramamurthy as Mohan, Devi’s father; Richa Moorjani, as Devi’s cousin Kamala; and tennis star John McEnroe as the series narrator.
A Typical Teenager
A look at Ramakrishnan’s social media handles gives a glimpse of a typical teenager, albeit a rebellious one, who is not afraid to speak her mind.
On her Instagram profile, she describes herself with the hashtag #browngirlcomeup, while her bio reads: “Respect existence or expect resistance.”
She currently has 947,000 followers on Instagram.
Last year, Today magazine named Ramakrishnan as one of 18 “Groundbreakers” for a series for International Day of the Girl. The magazine said Ramakrishnan “has been working towards shattering the barriers and changing the world.”
ScoopWhoop calls Ramakrishnan “a rebel for a cause,” who “actively advocates public education and the right to education.”
Last April, Ramakrishnan posted a photo on her Instagram stories, about participating in a protest against changes to government policy for education in Ontario. “We may not be able to vote right now, but we are still doing something and that’s what matters,” she wrote.
Ramakrishnan is a huge fan of the Harry Potter franchise. The actress shared a photo of herself at Universal Studios Hollywood on Instagram wearing a Hogwarts robe with the caption: “Chocolate frogs any day #gryffindor.”
No wonder she admired Emma Watson‘s character, Hermione Granger, as a kid. “I really loved the character, a very intelligent girl in school at Hogwarts. I also love her work she does being a feminist,” she told Today.
In fact, Watson is on Ramakrishnan’s list of stars she’d like to collaborate with in the future. There’s also her favorite actor, Steve Carrell, in addition to Tom Hanks and Morgan Freeman.
According to ScoopWhoop, “Ramakrishnan is also a part-time gamer and loves to play Nintendo and Animal Crossing: New Horizons but her go-to game is Super Smash Bros.”
A Generation X, it is not surprising that Ramakrishnan didn’t know who John McEnroe was before the series. She had to Google him “to be brought up to speed.”
The tennis legend may seem like an unlikely addition to the show, but to Kaling it made complete sense. Talking about her rationale behind getting the tennis legend as a narrator, Kaling told USA Today: “One thing that’s common for a lot of Indian parents is a love of tennis. It’s like an English Anglophile kind of thing.”
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that “Never Have I Ever” changed Ramakrishnan’s life overnight.
Around spring last year, the senior at Meadowvale Secondary School was preparing for her role as Velma Kelly in her high school’s production of “Chicago.” A year later, she is being hailed as a breakout star and has catapulted into global spotlight.
Prior to her role in “Chicago,” Ramakrishnan performed in a school production of “Footloose.” She was 15 at the time. In previous interviews she has mentioned that her participation in “Footloose” was more to fill vacant spots in the musical, than her love for acting.
Three years later, it was after being cast in “Chicago,” that Ramakrishnan knew she wanted to be an actress. “I think that happened when I was in Grade 12,” she told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC). “When it came to choosing a university, she told the CBC, “I was like, if I could do this for the rest of my life I would be one happy kid.”
She was accepted to York University to study theater, but she had to defer her admission, when she decided to apply to Kaling’s casting call for the lead character. She beat out 15,000 hopefuls in the open casting call to play Devi.
Ramakrishnan has talked about how she initially applied to the casting call as she “just wanted to hang around” with her best friend, Shaharah Gaznabbi. She told Variety that the pair booked a room at the library community center to shoot the audition tapes. It took them an hour to figure out how to work the camera, she recalled.
Dream Come True
It was after six audition tapes and two trips to Los Angeles that Ramakrishnan was cast as Devi and got a chance of a lifetime to work with Kaling. “I’ve always really looked up to her because she wears so many hats,” she told PopSugar about Kaling. “She does so many things, has so many skills, and really knows how to own her space and make a mark.”
Ramakrishnan is also a fan of Kaling’s “The Office.” She told TVOverMind that it was nice to be able to see someone on TV that resembled her. Like Ramakrishnan, many first generation youngsters have felt a kinship with Kaling, who’s a pioneer of sorts for Indian American representation and recognition on celluloid.
And going by photos on Ramakrishnan’s Instagram account, it appears that she and Kaling have gotten closer during the making of the series. She now considers Kaling a close friend and mentor and refers to her as her “fairy godmother” on social media.
Similarly, Kaling has nothing but praises for Ramakrishnan. “Maitreyi was the perfect choice for so many reasons,” Kaling told the Press Trust of India. “I loved that she was south Indian, like me, which you don’t get to see that often. She’s also just so naturally funny and comfortable in her skin,” she said. “To be the lead of a show, to really anchor it, you either need experience or to be naturally confident, and she was the latter.”
Poorna Jagannathan, who plays Devi’s mother Nalini, told Refinery29 that her onscreen daughter was “smart, unaffected, and ridiculously funny.”
Giving it Her All
Once she was finalized as Devi, Ramakrishnan decided to add a little bit of herself to Devi.
In an interview with PopSugar, Ramakrishnan said the character of Devi was a combination of Kaling and show creator Lang Fisher’s experiences as teenagers. After she was cast in the role, she said she was encouraged “by both of them to bring myself to the character and how I went through high school. So Devi is really a mix between Mindy Kaling, Lang Fisher, and Maitreyi Ramakrishnan.”
Giving Devi an added layer of character was probably easy for Ramakrishnan, who straddled two worlds, growing up as a first generation Canadian. She gave Devi some of her peppiness too, and wrote her catchphrase “What’s poppin?” The teen also learned the harp for the show.
She told Teen Vogue that there are “elements of similarity” between her and the character she plays. “But I’m a couple years older, so I’m not as naive, but I can still look back and remember what it was like to be fifteen. It’s like a sweet spot.”
Similarly, bringing her experience into her character and “staying true to that” helped her create “a really authentic, fleshed-out character,” she told the Huffington Post.
South Asian Representation
She told Time magazine that she wished there was a show like “Never Have I Ever,” while she was growing up. “You’re figuring out where you fit within your own culture, and identity is so important, whether it’s your culture, your sexuality, anything. It’s not only how you show yourself to the rest of the world, but also how you accept yourself.”
“Fitting in” was hard because Ramakrishna never grew up seeing someone who looked like her on TV, “someone who wasn’t the butt-end of the joke or the sidekick.”
“One thing that’s really important to me is just representation in the media in general, of people from all walks of life,” she told Today. “It’s really important to see on-screen people that they can identify with and relate to. To feel like they’re also a part of this world and they’re not an outsider.”
She told Now that she hoped her role and the series will help increase South Asian representation on screen. “I want other Tamils all over the world to feel pride that Tamil people are making it,” she said.
She credits Kaling for her work and for the platform. “I always had a bunch of respect for Mindy before this,” she told NPR. “But now it’s, like, times a million,” because “slowly but surely, we’re bringing in diversity.”
However, she acknowledges that there’s a long way to go. “And, you know, sure, Devi is one story of the South Asian community. But it’s definitely a step forward to bring South Asian stories to light, which I think is awesome.”