Indians are suckers for American shows that feature other Indians, partly because we are curious about what our counterparts are up to in other parts of the world, and partly to shit on them with “What would they know about Indian culture?” But the fact is, we still watch it, and love to hate it, or hate to love it. Last week, Netflix dropped Never Have I Ever, a coming-of-age teen series by the one of the most iconic (second-generation) American-Indian creators, Mindy Kaling, who, honestly, changed the way Americans, or even Indians, look at the Indians diaspora on American television. Yes, we’re not all nerds, and some of us are actually bad at math.
Never Have I Ever has come out at a good time—one in which we’re all indoors, streaming heavily, and are more open to experimenting with genres than in the Before Coronavirus era, only because we have that much time at hand. In a way, the show straddles several eras as well—geared towards adolescents and Gen Z by the look of it but made by a millennial icon. To know if it appeals to either of those demographics though, we got two VICE staffers who spent wasted the weekend watching a show that’s trending on Netflix’s Top 10 right now, to review it. Turns out, they might have more in common than previously thought.
Pallavi Pundir, VICE Staff Writer, 30
Let me just start with the fact that Mindy Kaling has been my personal hero on all the American shows she’s created or featured in. And this is despite the fact that she has many problems: like her deep disconnectedness from India (in The Mindy Project, Kaling’s character says she’s like a white American man, I really do believe it applies to her real persona too), or just some flippant racism in some of her previous work. But I still love her as that rare woman of colour in American television, a world that is strangely more obsessed with the Indian accent than our multi-cultural identity. Our Non Residential Indian (NRI) peers really had a moment in the mid-2000s, and for a while, I thought this is it. Plus, with Never Have I Ever, Kaling admitted that a big part of the show was her coming to terms with her 'Indianness'.
But Never Have I Ever crushed me, and much more. Not only was I assaulted with every desi stereotype possible, but also with some of the most worn-out high-school plot settings ever: A nerd wants to get with the hottest jock in school, and while at that, they fall for each other. And don’t get me wrong. I may be 30, but I do love a good teen romance movie every now and then.
But I guess things aren’t so simple when you have to play around a high school movie plot with a 15-year-old Indian girl. Cue the first stereotype: A nerd who is friends with only nerds. Then another: Living with a conservative mother (with a terrible Indian accent that is really NOT REAL, guys) who wants to impose arranged marriage and other “Indian” (apparently) life aspirations upon her daughter. Then the whole diaspora experience of being brown in a white society, which is so 2000s ( The Namesake did it for me, guys. We get your pain. But do you?). Whatever happened to Kaling’s brown characters that shine with exceptional self-confidence, are individuals with their own complexities, and are, honestly, a little more than just their geographical identity? Also, not all brown women are hairy, and no, again: We. Are. Not. All. Nerds.
Initially, I thought it’s an age thing. Maybe I’m just too jaded for a teen show. But then I realised, hell no, Kaling writes for our generation, one that doesn’t want to be pigeon-holed to a cliché or a label, or caricatured. But it looks like my Gen-Z colleagues agree with me on several fronts with the show, so I am convinced about two things after watching Never Have I Ever. One, that I am not too old for teen movies. And two, that my mental faculties are still intact despite the isolation-induced binge, enough to have stopped after the third episode.
Satviki Sanjay, VICE Intern, 19
Let me start by telling you how I’ve been looking forward to the show from the day I heard about it. I’m an average Indian Gen-Z kid, someone who was brought up on an unhealthy dose of the internet—a dose which helped in practically sustaining my entire adolescence on cheesy high school movies and shows—and Americanised pop culture. So naturally, I eagerly watched the trailer of the show—one that promised a protagonist I could relate to in that same American backdrop that I’ve grown watching—as soon as it came out. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have.
The trailer markets it as a teen romance where the unpopular nerd thirsts after the hot jock—a story we’ve seen rehashed over and over again, transcending time and language. In other words, it’s such a buzzkill. But even if the plot offers nothing new, a show or a movie can still be enjoyed because of other elements, right? So I dived in anyway, albeit with lower expectations. The first few episodes of the show patronisingly reduce the four-year experience of being a high school student to just two words: sex drives. Watching nine episodes of the girl chase the guy—at the cost of ruining her friendships—became exhausting very quickly, which is a shame because the show progresses and attempts to be so much more—with some much-needed character development, and subplots dealing with family, friends, and grief.
But all this while, it not only manages to exaggerate high school stereotypes, but also every Indian stereotype that exists in American pop culture—getting books blessed by their family pandit (and reblessed because they fell out of a window), the mother’s desire to shape her niece into this perfect bahu (daughter-in-law), and judgemental Indian parents and uncles making appearances. Plus, it also doesn’t help that the show tries to sum up the whole of India by depicting an upper-caste Brahmin family.
The show had a lot of potential to really talk about navigating high school as a POC, without inserting the stereotypical romance arc every-fucking-where. While somewhere deep down, I know that the romance arc has everything to do with her character development, it doesn’t change the fact that it becomes repetitive very quickly. It has some nice subplots about coming out and dealing with a parent’s death, but in most parts, it gets overshadowed by the running theme of the show.
It wasn’t one of the binges that I would say I’m proud of—it leaves me feeling a little empty in the end, and not in a good way. It is entertaining in parts, but the way every character talks and behaves makes it so obvious that it’s written by someone who hasn’t interacted with teenagers for a very long time. I, for one, can't recall one time as a 15-year-old when I, or someone I knew, did kegel exercises with friends. And honestly, the fact that the protagonist and her sister were willingly watching Riverdale should’ve just made me pay heed to the red flags, and saved me from a wasted weekend.