By: Harvin Bhathal, Peak Associate
As an Indian myself, I appreciated Never Have I Ever for what it provided for me. Broadly speaking (as there are a multitude of cultures in India), socially progressive Indian representation in Western television and film is non-existent. Most of the representation that does exist either relies on recycled stereotypes or minimizes Indian identity.
The show centres around the life of Devi Vishwakumar (played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), a 15-year-old Tamil Indian-American girl from Sherman Oaks, California. The overarching storyline involving Devi is the tumultuous relationship with her mother, Nalini, and the death of her father, Mohan — which happens prior to the first season commencing. After losing the use of her legs for three months due to the emotional trauma she experienced, the story follows her attempt to navigate her sophomore year of high school, all while dealing with grief and her Indian identity.
Whether here in Canada, the United States, the United Kingdom or elsewhere, many first-generation and migrant Indian children can identify with struggling with their Indian identity. On one hand, your family expects you to maintain the traditions and practices from their homeland, while also wanting the most for your life. In many cases, that’s the primary reason they migrated: to give you a better life.
But that dichotomy is a contradiction in and of itself.
Devi personifies this struggle through her family attending the Ganesh Puja celebration held at her high school. Dressed in the traditional wear of her culture, she feels out of place. While waiting in line for coffee and being asked to be in a photo in order to make a white person’s Instagram appear “cultural”, she feels out of place. In attempting to make conversation with other Indians at the celebration, she feels out of place. Not to mention the Indian aunties.
John McEnroe, one of the narrators and an accomplished tennis player (long story), says in the show, “Aunties are older Indian women who have no blood relationship to you, but are allowed to have opinions about your life and all your shortcomings. You have to be nice to them because you’re Indian.”
Every Indian, regardless of age, has come across aunties, and it is almost always a dreaded experience.
But this isn’t the only dreaded experience the show covers. Kamala is Devi’s cousin from India who is living with her family to finish her studies. Arranged marriages are a tradition across Indian cultures, where the trust is in parents and the family to arrange a marriage for their daughter (or son). But nowadays, although arranged marriages still happen, they are not as commonplace as they used to be. Still, Kamala’s marriage is arranged in the first episode and throughout the first season, the viewers are shown the many complexities of arranged marriages.
Never Have I Ever covered many aspects of Indian culture that aren’t always understood by people that aren’t exposed to it.
What is especially amazing about this show is that not only is it a watershed moment for Indian representation in television and/or cinema in Hollywood, it checks the boxes for representation across the board. This show has something for everyone, covering LGBTQ+ identity, grief, overbearing parents, disability, absentee parents, bullying, and more.
Never Have I Ever is the most realistic representation in Hollywood of the struggle to find your place in both Western culture and Indian culture, and is now available to stream on Netflix.