Never Have I Ever Seen A Brown Girl So Insufferable Yet So Entertaining To Watch
Devi Vishwakumar has the main character energy I wish I saw more of
When season one of Never Have I Ever came out in 2020 I was quick to binge-watch it. Not because I had read particularly good things about it or was eager to watch another high-school teen drama (as I am always up for it), or the fact that it had a brown female protagonist. I watched it solely because I had seen enough people on Twitter bash it. Going in with the intention of hate-watching it, I was surprised how little I could hate it, even when I actively cringed and acknowledged all the things it was criticised for.
What is different in Mindy Kailing’s Never Have I Ever is that while some of the Indian stereotypes persist, they are easy to ignore for me because I know Devi Vishwakumar’s story is not for me to relate to. In every Twitter discourse about this show, I saw brown girls from the Indian subcontinent complaining about how Devi is the most un-relatable character ever and how the show is an abomination in the name of representation. While women complained about this, I kept thinking: how will the experience of an Indian-American teenager be relatable to an average brown girl born and raised in India anyway? I mean, haven’t we all rolled eyes at how embarrassing our NRI relatives and their kids are at least once in our life? Isn’t this the same?
Although, the thing about Devi Vishwakumar played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is how reasonably flawed she is shown to be. Devi is a first-generation Indian-American teenager from Los Angeles and an overall self-assured badass, who, in my opinion, is the kind of brown representation we need more of. While many may misconstrue my statement, I simply mean that we need more brown characters with mundane storylines that are not rooted in identity crisis, self-doubt and discomfort. In her review of the show in The Guardian, author and editor Zoya Patel writes,“ Devi is Indian but she is also a person, not a caricature of an Indian migrant, there to serve as cultural dressing on a white bread sandwich.” And that is exactly how I feel about the show. When it comes to the representation of POC, I am a firm believer that it needs to be written by POC only. By that logic, Devi is exactly the character that Mindy Kailing, a first-generation Indian-American woman, set out to write. Kailing’s Vishwakumar is uncomfortable and cringe to many because never before has a brown girl been so narcissistic, hot-headed, obnoxious and disagreeable on screen.
Devi’s irrationality and impulsiveness is a part of her teenage experience and for once, it is refreshing to see a brown girl not be completely absorbed by the burdens of familial pressure.
The promo of season one, where Devi has a sex dream about Paxton, had me facepalming and thinking, “what in the name of white girl BS is this?” but then, in hindsight, I just think it worked to the advantage of the show. In an interview Hasan Minhaj did with desi kids of America for Patriot Act, a 15-year-old brown girl admits that if she had all the freedom in the world, she would like to have a boyfriend first. I remembered that and thought, “yeah, this makes complete sense”.
Speaking of familial pressure, Poorna Jagannathan as Nalini Vishwakumar, Devi’s mother, is the age-old Indian mom stereotype but not unbelievable. In the second season, there is a half-hearted attempt to give her character some depth which ends up looking unconvincing and forced instead. There is almost no chemistry between the mother-daughter duo who are grieving the untimely death of Devi’s father. I am not sure if this was deliberate keeping in mind the reservation of emotions in the Indian context or simply considered unimportant. However, it seems as if Nalini’s apparent strictness and impositions mean nothing to Devi, who often tends to make unguided, rash decisions as an act of teenage rebellion. Entertaining to watch nevertheless.
All that being said, the show does have a few cringe moments that are simply hard and oddly funny to overlook. The tacky Ganesh puja affair from season one, Nalini’s parents and the house back in India (seriously, what was that?) and John McEnroe’s narration that is plain unnecessary (and a bit annoying too) across seasons. Never Have I Ever is a show you will like, if not enjoy when seen for what it is— a high-school teen drama. As for me, I am just happy a brown girl is at the front and centre of a show and not just a mere support role or a comic relief.