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Is Mindy Kaling Going Back to Her Roots?
May 13, 2020  | By Monique Nazareth
 


“You have an idea of how your life is going to turn out. When I was a kid, all I did was watch romantic comedies in our living room while I did my homework.”

In those opening lines of the 2012 pilot episode of The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling set us up for a rom-com. But then she reshaped and redefined the genre by giving us an unorthodox heroine and an original story arc.

Now Kaling is doing the same with Never Have I Ever, currently streaming on Netflix. The show is about an Indian-American high school girl, Devi Vishwakumar, who lives in Sherman Oaks, California.

Kaling (right) drew from her own teenage years for the series, though it was with some initial hesitance. She recently told NPR’s Fresh Air With Terry Gross, “I thought it would honestly be too painful and embarrassing to relive those experiences.”

However, she says, she changed her mind after speaking with some of the show’s other Indian writers and found they had common experiences.

In Never Have I Ever, Devi is trying to overcome her image as a weird girl. She got that reputation because, in her freshman year, her dad, Mohan, died from a heart attack in the middle of her school orchestra concert. The shock of it caused her to have unexplained paralysis of her legs for three months. It ended just as suddenly as it appeared. With her legs back to normal, Devi starts her sophomore year determined to “rebrand” herself and her friends, which includes getting boyfriends.

Helping Devi’s story along is a narrator who is not a teenager, Indian, or even female: tennis great John McEnroe as himself. If this seems an odd choice to you, you’re not alone. But it turns out McEnroe was Mohan’s favorite athlete. And while McEnroe admits his own limitations in explaining the emotions of an Indian teenage girl, he actually does a great job of it!

McEnroe is just one example of the excellent casting in Never Have I Ever. Devi is played by newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (top and left), whose previous acting experience was in her Canadian high school theater. Devi’s dermatologist mom, Nalini, is played by a seasoned actress, Poorna Jagannathan, whose past roles include HBO’s The Night Of as well as Room 104.

Devi and Nalini’s relationship is the heart of the show and very tense. Nalini is overly strict with her daughter as she struggles to raise her alone. Both are haunted by memories of Mohan, played by Sendhil Ramamurthy. He is seen in numerous flashbacks as everything Nalini isn’t: joyful, optimistic, fun-loving, and a risk-taker. Kaling, who lost her own mother in 2012, explores different parts of the grieving process in a very touching and realistic way, including memories both sweet and painful.

Added to the household is Devi’s beautiful cousin, Kamala (Richa Shukla Moorjani). Kamala has moved from India to work on her Ph.D. at CalTech. She is caught between wanting a career and independence and being a dutiful daughter. Devi doesn’t like her cousin, not only because men fall over themselves when they see her, but, as Devi puts it, “she’s just so… Indian.” Kamala has a secret boyfriend who, when Devi accidentally finds out, actually makes her like her cousin more to know she’s not so perfect.

Devi goes to a very diverse high school where her best friends are Fabiola Torres (Lee Rodriguez, top), captain of the high school robotics team, and Eleanor Wong (Ramona Young, top), president of the drama club. Both the girls are dealing with secrets and mother issues, but they go along with Devi’s insistence that they get boyfriends and change their image.

Then there are the boys.

Ben Gross (Jaren Lewison) has been Devi’s academic nemesis since they were in first grade. Lewison does a great job of making Ben more complex, and eventually more likeable and sympathetic.

Finally, there’s the popular boy Devi is obsessed with, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet, left). In the pilot episode, she boldly asks him if he will have sex with her in one of the most embarrassing moments in the series. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Kaling production without a good romantic plot mixed in. And she gives that to us with a great love triangle cliffhanger.

There’s a lot to be said for what Kaling has accomplished with Never Have I Ever. However, what I think makes it stand out from other coming-of-age shows is how so much of it focuses on what community and cultural identity mean to first-generation Americans. That question of what it means to be true to your roots and culture is a topic Kaling touched on in The Mindy Project.

A lot was riding on The Mindy Project when it debuted in 2012, at least for the South Asian community. Until that point, South Asians in this country were portrayed as stereotypes. The men were like Apu in The Simpsons or Raj Koothrappali in The Big Bang Theory, while the women were portrayed as exotic models like Cece in New Girl.

“As an Indian-American woman, I can’t stress enough how significant it is that Kaling is the only Indian-American lead on television and the first Indian-American female lead ever. It’s a huge deal and earns Mindy a spot in television history,” Kayla Upadhyaya, Managing Arts Editor of the Michigan Daily, wrote shortly after the show debuted.

It was a distinction Kaling wasn’t always happy being asked about. In 2013 she told Parade, “There are little Indian girls out there who look up to me, and I never want to belittle the honor of being an inspiration to them…. But while I’m asked about why I’m so different, white male showrunners get to talk about their art.”

Whether or not she wanted to do it, Kaling has inspired others, and likely opened some doors. I can’t help wondering if Priyanka Chopra would have been cast as the lead in Quantico had it not been for Kaling. (Coincidentally, Chopra and Kaling are reportedly working together on an upcoming rom-com).

The Mindy Project (right) focused on the life and loves of Mindy Lahiri, the hopeless romantic, self-confident, uninhibited New York obstetrician-gynecologist. It spent three seasons on Fox before moving to HULU, which allowed Kaling to really free herself from the chains of network TV. One of the most interesting episodes was in Season 4. Lahiri is on a date with an Indian man during which she confesses he’s the first Indian she’s ever dated, and she doesn’t even have any Indian friends. He calls her “a coconut” -- brown on the outside and white on the inside. The comment leaves her wondering about how Indian she is. She even talks to her brother about whether he thinks they are “super Indian.” He comments, “We represent a new kind of Indian-American. Ones with literally zero roots to our past.”

Lahiri’s identity struggle is similar to what Devi is going through. She is uncomfortable with her culture and tries to distance herself from it to fit in. In episode 4, titled “Never Have I Ever…felt super Indian,” Devi accompanies her mom and cousin to the Hindu Association’s celebration of Ganesh Puja, which happens to be held at her high school. She wears traditional Indian clothing to the event and feels like a fish out of water. Her attempts to poke fun at aspects of the celebration go badly. For example, she runs into an old friend who, like her, mocked these Indian events. Only now he tells her how, after going to college and seeing how proud his Native American friend is of his culture, he’s come to respect the Indian traditions. That comment leaves Devi feeling embarrassed, and she awkwardly excuses herself.

Maitreyi, who plays Devi, spoke to Teen Vogue about why she found that episode unique. “That’s an important narrative that I don’t think I’ve ever seen in film or TV,” she said. “I think a lot of people of any diaspora can relate to that feeling of not knowing where you fit within your culture.”

Kaling also explored the pressures of cultural identity in her 10 part HULU series, Four Weddings and a Funeral which finished its first season in September 2019. She wrote and produced it, along with her Mindy Project collaborator Matt Warburton. The series is about a group of attractive young professionals living in London. Among the group is a handsome Pakistani-British investment banker Kash (played by Nikesh Patel). Kash hates his job, and longs try acting as a career. However, he doesn’t want to disappoint his widowed father. His desire to be a dutiful son leads him to consider an arranged marriage. Eventually, he finds a way to follow his dream.

It’s much like the situation Kamala finds herself in with Never Have I Ever. Her boyfriend points out that as she was brave enough to travel halfway around the world to pursue her dreams, why would she let anyone dictate who she should marry. By chance, she meets an Indian woman at the Ganesh Puja celebration, who serves as a cautionary tale. She tells Kamala that she chose love over family, and married a Muslim. She is now a divorcee and shunned by the Indian community. She confesses if she had to do it over again, she would have an arranged marriage.

Kamala (above) does finally meets the prospective groom, and it’s then the story takes a turn. This includes a series of events that lead Devi and Nalini to finally confront the grief they’ve been avoiding since Mohan’s death.

With Never Have I Ever, Kaling brings this unique aspect of being Indian, and yet she has made the Indian-American experience mainstream. The series’ mass appeal and rave reviews show that many people can relate to Devi’s story.

Kaling also seems to be more comfortable being seen as a role model. She said as much a year ago while promoting the 2019 film, Late Night. In that movie, she plays the sole female and person of color hired to write for a late-night talk show. Kaling based the idea of being the diversity hire on her experiences from 2004 writing for the NBC show The Office. She talked about this in an interview with the online news site Deadline and what she can do at this point in her career to help others.

“I realized that the only way that people will have these kinds of opportunities — there’s literally been so little change for women of color — is if people like me make a difference. So it’s just the fact of the matter. We have to be the ones to open the doors for other people,” she told them.

With Never Have I Ever, she’s opened up doors for many, and she’s giving the audience new perspectives on old genres.

 
 
 
 
 
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