By: Jeremy Ullmann
When Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever hit Netflix, Kavya Raj binge-watched it in a matter of hours.
The coming-of-age comedy tells the story of 15-year old Devi Vishwakumar, following her as she navigates her dual cultural identity as a first generation Indian American. While, like most binge-worthy shows, it features compelling characters, continuous storytelling and cliff-hangers, there is a unique sell about Never Have I Ever which makes it stand out from other shows.
“My first reaction to this show was, oh my God, there’s someone who’s gone through the same emotional experience and cultural negotiation as me,” says Raj, a 24 year old Indian-Australian paralegal who has navigated this dual identity herself.
“To finally see a main character on Netflix come from the same South Asian culture, who is not just an Indian character trope, was just very heartening.”
Never Have I Ever is a big deal. Soaring to the top of Netflix’s most viewed charts and holding a 98 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, the show has fast become a lockdown sensation. The show’s success is being celebrated as a watershed moment for its representation of South Asians in Western media, breaking down well-established stereotypes along its ten-episode run. Many South Asian immigrants to Western countries or first-generation immigrants, like Raj, love the show because it is relatable, exploring dual identity without caricaturing it.
But despite this wave of praise, the show is starting to face increasing criticism for its depiction of other minority groups. There are concerns on its relaxed handling of sensitive issues such as Islamophobia, antisemitism, fatphobia and ableism. When the character of Jaya is introduced, a Hindu woman shunned by the local community for marrying a Muslim man, the show creators did not use this as an opportunity to challenge Islamophobia, but rather normalised her ostracization. Casual jokes about the Holocaust are made. An overweight character seems only to exist for his weight and eating habits to be ridiculed. Devi’s paralysis is miraculously cured when she stands up to get a better look at her crush, which some people have argued could harmfully inform young disabled people that a miraculous cure is possible for them too, and is needed for them, as well.
Another criticism of the show, much less obvious to most Western viewers, is that it only presents upper-caste Hindu Indians, reinforcing an inaccurate stereotype that characters such as Devi and her family are representative of all South Asians. For all its leaps forward in terms of representation, why does it exclude a discussion on caste?
This critique is not unique to Never Have I Ever, but has long been seen as an overarching problem with Western media representations of South Asians. According to Professor Rini Bhattacharya Mehta, a professor of comparative and world literature at the University of Illinois and who teaches courses on globalisation, religion and Indian cinema, the United States in particular, suffers from this problem in its media depictions of South Asian communities.
“It is important to understand that America, unlike the British who have a long post-colonial relationship with India, do not know much about India,” she said, explaining that this filters into Hollywood’s version of Indians, and Indian society.
“They are, in fact, completely clueless when it comes to the complexities of caste, religion and diversity in Indian society.”
At one point in the show, Devi compares being grounded to “indentured servitude,” a comment, that—while believable as a dramatic teenage outburst—offended many online. While some argue this is a small blip on the show’s overall success with diversity and representation, Professor Mehta explains that these kinds of jokes can actually be quite damaging, and must be taken seriously.
“When the lower castes are represented in the media, their way of life is often deemed as funny,” she continues
“But being traditional in most cases is actually not funny, and it is damaging to think this. Like the patriarchy, if you laugh at patriarchal ideals, what we’re doing is actually accepting it.”
Bollywood, the Indian Hindi-language film industry, plays a crucial role in creating the narrow view that informs Western audiences interact with and understand Indian culture. The image it presents is largely limited to the stories of the upper castes of Indian society—and can hardly be blamed on an ignorance of diversity.
“Bollywood has a huge caste, colour and race problem,” Professor Mehta continues, elaborating on how this manifests in Indian cinema. “Most of the stories revolve around romances with ‘fair skinned’ actors, where both the hero and heroine are from the same community and the caste is never even mentioned. For the longest period, Bollywood did not even want to touch or show interracial romance.”
As Bollywood romanticises upper-caste cultural and social experiences, it has found a key audience in the Indian diaspora. The production and consumption of films that are predominantly based on upper caste stories and based around upper class actors, is what makes this current critique of Never Have I Ever so difficult, as it is being created to be relatable to its audience.
“What was supposed to be the American dream, is now the modern Indian dream,” Raj says, elaborating on how this “romantic image” informs both the enjoyment, and critique of Never Have I Ever.
“Where you’re able to live in California and date hot boys, you’re able to have sex without your mother and father and postman and aunties and uncle weighing in with their opinions, you are able to take a motorcycle and just go drive it.”
At the end of the day, is the criticism of caste-blindness justified? For a show where the episodes are only 25 minutes long, and follow ordinary experiences of a teenage girl, it might be too much to expect the show to cover all bases—particularly when it has already taken such strides in tackling stereotypes relevant to its western audience. Many have defended Mindy Kaling, arguing that it is not her, or other creators of colour’s job to constantly educate others about race. And indeed, why should every show featuring an actor from a historically marginalized group have to shoulder all of the demands of people of colour, everywhere?
“This show is, of course, not a true representation,” Professor Mehta explains. “Neither is it trying to give the God’s own truth of about Indian culture. It is a very American show, following a particular tradition of American mainstream network comedy. That is, a story of teenagers told through a teenagers voice.”
As the show looks likely to be renewed for a second season, it is still possible that these criticisms can be addressed.
But despite the importance of these issues, if Devi is just meant to be a teenage girl worrying about dating the hottest guy in school, is it even her job to explain them?